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Huge blast rocks Somalia’s capital; police say 20 killed

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — A huge explosion from a truck bomb killed 20 people in Somalia’s capital, police said Saturday, as shaken residents called it the most powerful blast they’d heard in years.

The explosion appeared to target a hotel on a busy road in Hodan district and at least 15 people were injured, police Capt. Mohamed Hussein said. Security forces had been trailing the truck after it raised suspicions, he said.

Police said people were trapped in the rubble of the Safari Hotel, which was largely destroyed in the explosion. The hotel is close to Somalia’s foreign ministry. Rescue workers were at the scene.
The Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab recently stepped up attacks on army bases across south and central Somalia. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s blast, al-Shabab often targets high-profile areas of Mogadishu with deadly bombings.

Gunshots could be heard at the site, and ambulance sirens wailed across the capital, which has been under tight security with military-manned checkpoints.

The explosion left a trail of destruction across a busy intersection, with several bodies and bloodied slippers and shoes. Windows of nearby buildings were shattered. Overturned cars lay in the street, burning. A large plume of smoke rose nearby.

Crime

Somalia’s first forensic lab targets rape impunity

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AFP — Garowe – The new freezers at Somalia’s only forensic laboratory can store thousands of DNA samples, although for now there are just five.

The big hope is that they could be the start of a revolution in how the troubled Horn of Africa country tackles its widespread sexual violence – provided some daunting hurdles are overcome.

The first sample arrived at the start of the year taken on a cotton swab from the underwear of a woman, a rape victim from the village of Galdogob.

It was wrapped in paper and driven 250km to the Puntland Forensic Centre in Garowe, capital of semi-autonomous Puntland, slipped into a protective glass tube and placed in one of the three ultra-low temperature fridges.

If DNA ID can be teased from the sample, this would be a crucial step in convicting the woman’s rapist.

No longer would it be a case of he-said-she-said, in which the survivor is less often believed than the accused. Two decades of conflict and turmoil have made Somalia a place where lawlessness and sexual violence are rampant.

“Now, people who have been raped hide because they don’t have evidence,” said Abdifatah Abdikadir Ahmed, who heads the Garowe police investigations department.

But with the lab, he said, “it’s a scientific investigation. There are biological acts you can zero in on.”

Challenges

Not yet, however.

Abdirashid Mohamed Shire, who runs the lab, has a team of four technicians ready but is awaiting the arrival of the final pieces of equipment.

Their work to provide the evidence that might convict or exonerate is yet to begin.

And the pressure is on. The freezers mean the DNA samples can be safely stored for years but Somali law allows a rape suspect to be held for a maximum of 60 days. Shire needs the analysis and identification machines urgently so that, as he put it, “justice will be timely served”.

The laboratory, partly funded by Sweden, was launched last year after the Puntland state government enacted a Sexual Offences Act in 2016, which criminalised sexual offences and imposed tough penalties.

But technology alone will not solve Somalia’s many judicial weaknesses.

The DNA sample from Galdogob, for example, was stored in unclear and unrefrigerated conditions for five days before being sent to the lab, meaning a defence counsel could potentially argue the DNA evidence had been tampered with.

Human rights lawyers worry the new lab might backfire for this reason.

“A lot of thought needs to be given to how the chain of custody can be preserved in these kinds of cases,” said Antonia Mulvey of Legal Action Worldwide, a Kenya-based non-profit organisation.

More fundamental still is the failure of Somalia’s police to take sexual assault cases – and their jobs – seriously.

Corruption is rife, with a legal advisor to Puntland’s justice ministry saying officers “meddle” in cases, undermining them for personal gain.

“My concern is that the corrupted system could not make a sure success of the lab,” the advisor said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “Investing in the lab is good, but we need to think about the preconditions.”

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) which helped pay for the lab is trying to address this by running training programmes for dozens of the Garowe police on sample collection, gender violence investigations and documentation.

But, the legal advisor cautioned that donors can only do so much.

“The issue is more complicated than training police. It relates to the political commitment of the government. UNFPA can train police but who will pay those you train? Are they given power to do the work?”

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Briefing Room

US military says drone strike in Somalia kills 4 extremists

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VOA — A U.S. drone strike has killed several al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia, officials tell VOA.

Local sources said missiles fired Wednesday targeted a rickshaw carrying five al-Shabab militants near Jamaame, in the southern Lower Juba region.

“I can tell you that the airstrike hit a rickshaw and that five militants were killed. It was carried out by U.S. drone, helping our intelligence forces on the ground,” a Somali government official told VOA Somali on the condition of anonymity.

The attack was confirmed by witnesses and local residents, who also asked for anonymity because they feared militant reprisals.

Somali officials said they were investigating the identity of those targeted. Some sources said two of those in the rickshaw were civilians traveling with three militants.

A statement Thursday from the U.S. Africa Command said the strike was carried out by the U.S. military “in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement said the strike killed four terrorists and no civilians.

On Tuesday, local residents in the region reported another airstrike that destroyed an al-Shabab training camp in the nearby town of Jilib. That airstrike, also confirmed by U.S. Africa Command, killed three militants.

The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against al-Shabab and Islamic State militants in support of Somalia’s federal government.

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Human Rights

Somali children abused in anti-insurgency crackdown, families say

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday al Shabaab Islamists had forcibly recruited thousands of children – some as young as nine – and hundreds have been detained by Somali authorities.

The detentions violate a 2014 agreement by the government to treat child detainees separately and work with the United Nations to rehabilitate them, the HRW report said.

Government ministers for justice and human rights did not respond to requests for comment. The chairman of Somalia’s military courts, Liban Ali Yarow, told Reuters he did not speak to the media.

Clan elder Ugas Mohamed Wali, said his two nephews aged 12 and 13 were arrested on their way to school last year, along with 17 other teenagers. Both boys were jailed for eight years, he said.

“There are many problems in Somalia. Children are seized and arrested if accidentally they are passing near a blast scene,” he said, showing pictures of the two boys on his mobile phone.

“The 17 teenagers were released when they were brought to Mogadishu because they were from rich families. We had no money and so the two kids were taken into the underground cell where they were tortured.”

HRW cited U.N. figures saying Somali security forces arrested 386 children in 2016 during operations targeting al-Shabaab. Many were released after their parents paid bribes or clan elders intervened, but those whose families lacked money or influence were kept.

Authorities have handed over 250 children to the United Nations for rehabilitation since 2015, the report said, but that was often after months of pressure.

“In a justice system that remains heavily reliant on forced confessions, children are not spared,” the report said, adding that children were “threatened and on occasion beaten, at times in ways that amount to torture”.

Fahmo Mantan Warsame told Reuters her 17-year-old son was arrested three years ago and sentenced to 10 years in jail for being a member of al Shabaab and that she had paid a total of $3,700 to various officials to try to free him.

“They ask you money at every door you go to. The one who writes a letter asks for money. The one who claims he will release a child asks for money. Nothing else. And when they have bled you dry, and after they take all money, they switch off their phones,” she said.

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