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The Latest: 35 Somali victims arrive in Turkey for treatment

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A Turkish military plane carrying 35 people wounded in a massive truck explosion in Somalia has arrived in Turkey.

The plane also brought 34 people to accompany the victims.

The wounded will be treated at hospitals in the capital, Ankara.

Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdag told reporters that 13 victims are in serious condition.

The minister says three of the wounded are children.

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Somalia: Detained Children Face Abuse + INTERVIEW

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Boys arrested in security operations have often been held by intelligence forces, namely Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu or Puntland’s Intelligence Agency (PIA) in Bosasso. Intelligence agencies decided how they categorized children, how long they kept children, and if and when they handed them over to UNICEF. Independent oversight of screening processes and custody has been severely limited.

Officials and guards have subjected children to coercive treatment and interrogations including cutting them off from their relatives and legal counsel, threatening them, and on occasion beating and torturing them, primarily to obtain confessions or as punishment for speaking out or disorder in the cells. A 16-year-old held for months in a NISA facility in 2016 said: “They would take me out of my cell at night and pressure me to confess. One night, they beat me hard with something that felt like a metal stick. I was bleeding for two weeks, but no one treated me.”

Children also described being held with adult detainees in dire conditions for days without seeing family. A 15-year-old detained in a mass sweep in 2017 and held by NISA for several weeks said: “I couldn’t sleep at night as there was no space and I suffered from excruciating headaches, but received no medication.”

While the criminal prosecution of children is not common in Somalia, the authorities make use of an outdated legal system to try children in military courts, primarily as adults, for security crimes, including solely for Al-Shabab membership, Human Rights Watch found. Since 2016, over two dozen children have been tried in military courts in Puntland alone. Children face proceedings that fail to meet basic juvenile justice standards with limited ability to prepare a defense and in which coercive confessions have been admitted as evidence.

Boys who were first used by Al-Shabab and then detained by government security forces said that felt doubly trapped and victimized. “I feel afraid and let down,” said a 15-year old whom Al-Shabab abducted and then sent to fight in Puntland in March 2016, only to be captured and sentenced by a military court to 10 years in prison. “Al-Shabab forced me into this, and then the government gives me this long sentence.”

While federal and regional authorities have handed over 250 children to UNICEF for rehabilitation since 2015, this has largely been the result of sustained advocacy and often after children have spent considerable time in detention.

Somali authorities should end arbitrary detention of children, allow for independent monitoring of children in custody, and ensure access to relatives and legal counsel. If children are to be prosecuted for other serious offenses, they should be tried in civilian courts that guarantee basic juvenile justice protections, and any punishment should consider alternatives to detention and prioritize the child’s reintegration into society.

Somalia’s international partners should press for civilian oversight of cases involving children, seek independent monitoring of all detention facilities, and call for the credible investigation of abuses against children, including by intelligence officers, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Somali government should treat children as victims of the conflict, and ensure that children, regardless of the crimes they may have committed, are accorded the basic protection due to all children,” Bader said. “Authorities across the country should improve supervision of children in detention and prioritize rehabilitation in addressing their cases. International partners should help bolster child-specific judicial and other procedures.”

A prison warden at a prison in Garowe, Puntland state, in northeastern Somalia, December 2016. Fifty-four boys, some as young as 12, sent to fight by Al-Shabab in Puntland, spent months in this facility far from their homes. A military court sentenced 28 of the 54 boys to long prison terms, which they are now serving in a rehabilitation center in Garowe. © 2016 Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Interview: How Security Forces in Somalia Fail to Protect Children

Over the last decade the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab has recruited, often forcibly, thousands of Somali children – under age 18, using many as fighters on the front line. Over the last two years, Somali security forces have arrested suspected Al-Shabab sympathizers – including children. Senior Africa researcher Laetitia Bader spoke to Audrey Wabwire about what happens to these boys in detention, and why protecting their rights has proven elusive.

How is it that children get involved with Al-Shabab in the first place?

Al-Shabab uses many means to recruit children, including enticements, deceit and force. Poor rural communities, with little protection, are particularly vulnerable to this sort of pressure.

Some boys I spoke to said they were taken at gunpoint from Quranic schools, where children receive religious instruction. Sometimes they are told that that they are going to a Quranic reading competition. One boy went to such a competition and won. After winning, he thought he would get a chance to go to another school, and he was dropped off at a school. Later that night, Al-Shabab fighters picked him up and took him to a training camp. He was then trained with other children and sent to fight in Puntland. His father had encouraged him to take part in this competition because he thought he would get money or a prize. This boy was in prison when I was spoke to him, and his father now feels guilty for encouraging him.

Security forces also conduct mass sweeps where they cordon off an area of a recent attack. They then arrest young men or boys in the area for further interrogation. Some boys who are picked up in mass sweeps on flimsy evidence never get to a chance to give their side of the story – including those with no connection at all to Al-Shabab.

Somali authorities are unlawfully detaining and at times prosecuting in military courts children with alleged ties to the Islamist

What is life like for a child who is arrested for being a member of Al-Shabab?

Their life is tough. Boys picked up for security offenses can spend months in detention, held for coercive interrogations, in dark cells, unable to sleep for days because there is no space to lie down. One boy said he got unbearable headaches because he never slept. They are detained with adults, sometimes violent criminals. One boy told me he was hit by a guard when he complained about being locked up with adults. And only those from powerful clans or who are better off financially have any chance of being allowed to get in touch with their parents.

One boy who was 16 when he spent months in the custody of the intelligence agency in Mogadishu, the capital, described being repeatedly interrogated. He was also badly beaten and left with a deep wound. I saw a scar left by this injury.

What is Mogadishu central prison’s juvenile section like?

The conditions are poor. Although children sleep separately from adults, they mingle with adults in a common area during the day including during meal times. At the time of our visit, each child had a mattress on the cement floor, although officials pointed to bunk beds that were being built for the juvenile section. They appeared to have little opportunity for exercise apart from playing in a large open-air courtyard that the adults also use.

The children had no access to education, although we have heard recently that they may be starting to offer some classes.
Launch Map

What happens to the boys when they are released?

None of the boys I spoke to were unscarred by the experience.

Two boys told me they dropped out of school. One felt his reputation was tarnished. A 15-year-old boy said that for people his age, the fear of being recruited by Al-Shabaab or arrested by security forces for being at the wrong place at the wrong time leaves them with very little freedom because they have to constantly watch out for both Al-Shabab and security agents. Several said they’d stopped doing what normal teen-age boys like to do: hanging out in the streets with their friends.

Over 250 children have been handed over to the United Nations and its child protection partners for rehabilitation. This is in line with the government’s commitments. But too often, this has only happened after significant pressure on the authorities, and after the kids have spent months in detention.

Was there any child who really stood out for you?

There was a 15-year-old, an orphan, who was picked up in a security operation in 2015 following an assassination in his neighborhood. He was held at a police station in Mogadishu for several weeks. Others were released to their relatives, but he had no one coming for him, no one bringing him food. They insisted that he must be an Al-Shabab fanatic because he had no friends or family.

One boy was recruited at 14 and spent two years in Al-Shabab’s ranks. Al-Shabab fighters beat him when he tried to find a phone to call his family. He eventually ran away with other boys.

Other boys described the dangerous military operations for Al-Shabab that made them decide to flee. The boys often also got malaria while training. They lived outside in poor conditions, and sometimes the nights were cold and made them particularly miserable.

Why shouldn’t the boys be arrested? The Somalia government has a duty to protect against Al- Shabaab.

Even if a child has committed a serious crime, they still need protection. Under Somalia’s international legal commitments, detention should be the last resort and for the shortest time possible since it is traumatic for children. They need access to their family and to lawyers. They also need to be kept separate from adults.

Somalia’s constitution defines children as 18 and under, though laws in other regions make 15 the age of maturity. Children are also criminally responsible from 15 onward. Even when children commit serious crimes, though, international law requires the justice system to treat them differently than adults, providing greater protection and prioritizing rehabilitation over incarceration. While Somalia has laws that spell out protections for children charged with crimes, these are rarely implemented. The laws need to be harmonized and reformed so that Somali children are protected within a functioning juvenile system.

What can parents do if their children are imprisoned?

I conducted most of my interviews for our report in early 2017, after Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmajo,” had recently been selected as president. There was an atmosphere of promise and hope in much of the country. The detained boys and their parents were hopeful, too, and believed that there would be justice in their cases if they could be reviewed.

Many parents I spoke to were scared because their children have been sentenced by Somalia’s military court. They feel that if they appeal, they will make things worse. Lawyers at the court told them that appeals worsen the situation, even though this is not always the case. A lot of recruitment happens in rural areas where parents have no means to seek redress for their children who have been treated improperly.

How did you do this research?

I traveled around Somalia in places where children had been arrested, such as Garowe in Puntland. I also traveled to areas where recruitment has been high, for example the Bay region. I spoke to relatives, to understand how children get caught in — and leave — Al-Shabab, and what happens when they return home. In Mogadishu, I spoke to boys who had been arrested during security operations. I also interviewed government officials and visited Mogadishu central prison’s juvenile section, where boys sentenced for Al-Shabab-related crimes are being held.

What’s it like working on a country that faces conflict and insecurity? What keeps you hopeful?

What keeps me hopeful? The incredible stories of survival and hope. It was inspiring to hear from parents who, despite what their children went through with Al Shabaab and while detained by the government, believe that systems can improve.

Incredibly, the boys still have hope for their future, despite dropping out of school and losing friends. One 16-year-old who had spent three months in Puntland prison said he was happy to be receiving education while in prison. There is an education program in the prison because of international support. He said that with his knowledge of English, he could later become a translator.

The Somali government has genuine security concerns. However, so many people still believed it was worth their while telling us their story. No one had ever shown interest in these boys or asked them what happened. It was a privilege to hear these often painful accounts for the first time, and to let us tell their story.

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Humanitarian Watch

Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands

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Baidoa, Somalia (CNN)The murderous al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by the very western nations who are trying to eliminate the terror group.

A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the United Nations to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of Africa’s oldest terrorist organization.

Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through road blocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies to sell to internally displaced people in towns where they are concentrated.

People who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the central Somali city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards that the UN tops up with around $80 to $90 each month, enabling them to buy essentials from local merchants.

UN officials say this direct payment system will avoid distorting local markets by flooding them with free food, and relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft.

Businessmen now truck food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive every day. But they must pay al-Shabaab, which controls the main road into the town, to move their goods.

Former members of the terror group and Somali intelligence agents said that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks on Somalia’s busiest road raked in thousands every day. The UN has estimated that a single roadblock generated about $5,000 per day on the road to Baidoa.

‘Tax’ collectors

Speaking at a secret location on the outskirts of Baidoa, a former zaqat (tax) collector for al-Shabaab, who was captured in a recent raid by agents from Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, confirmed that the extraction of tolls at roadblocks was one of the biggest sources of money for al-Shabaab.

The two biggest sources were the road to Baidoa and the main artery which connects the capital Mogadishu with the agriculturally-rich Lower Shabelle region.

The gouging is more subtle today than it was in the early 1990s, when local warlords deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of Somalis in order to profit from international aid money. Scenes of mass death on the streets of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the United States to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention in the same year.

In Baidoa back then, a truck known as the Death Bus collected around 100 bodies a day, all of them skeletal from starvation, from the dusty streets of the town every morning.

Aid organizations were so desperate to help that they paid warlords to permit access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing into their coffers — effectively exploiting desperate people to turn a profit.

Back then, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross had to pay for armed guards — the ICRC spent $100,000 a week on protection in Mogadishu.

The money went into the hands of mere gangsters — not international terrorist organizations, who are less forgiving when their debts go unpaid.
In 2018, if local merchants don’t pay up, “they’re captured and killed,” said a former al-Shabaab fighter who collected tax for eight years and now works with Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Speaking in a secret location in Baidoa, he explained how for every sack of rice delivered to the city by private merchants, al-Shabaab would cream off about $3 in tolls, taking nearly half the difference in the price of a sack that sells for $18 in Mogadishu and $26 in Baidoa.

On top of that the merchants are then forced to pay an annual tax to al-Shabaab — even in towns and cities that are not under the group’s control, like Baidoa and Mogadishu.

These allegations have been confirmed by the regional government and the president of the South West State of Somalia, Hssan Sheikh Ada.

Michael Keating, the UN’s head of country, acknowledged the scam but said that most of the foreign aid still reached its intended destination.

“Unfortunately those in need, and those who are going to be targeted by humanitarian organizations to receive assistance, do become attractive for those trying to make money, and there will be all sorts of scams going on,” said Keating, a veteran UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“To deny it is happening would be wrong, but I think to take examples of it happening, and to say the whole response is like this, would be a gross misrepresentation of what is going on.”

Forced to flee

The paying of “zaqat” isn’t confined to road tolls and taxes on businessmen. Ordinary Somalis have to pay an annual tax to the al Qaeda group which was behind terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall four years ago.

Fatima Ali Hassan used to own dozens of goats and cows. Driven out of her home by drought and demands for money by al-Shabaab, the mother of seven now lives in a tent made out of rags in Baidoa. She’s one of tens of thousands who have made their way to this hungry city.

But even here, she’s an asset to the terror group, like the other 270,000 displaced people living in the city — and more are pouring in every day. The UN fears that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to make money from foreign aid — particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes through the interior of the country.

Somalia’s national army is a patchwork quilt of rival militias sewn together by thin threads of hope that one day it will be able to prevail against the extremists.

For now, the country’s primary fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the country’s fledgling government in Mogadishu, and working to wrest control of south back from al-Shabaab. But it’s withdrawing slowly and is expected to be out of the country in two year’s time.

The African Union military leadership admits that it can’t push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income.
“Instead of reducing [AU forces], it should have been increased,” said Lt. Colonel Chris Ogwal. “We are now overstretched, we are just conducting minor offensive operations.”

Ogwal commands the Ugandan contingent which controls the road between Mogadishu and the small town of Afgoye — but not, critically, the rest of the way to Baidoa.

That remains al-Shabaab’s financial artery.

Ogwal said that any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab would fill.

This leaves a growing number of American troops — more than 500, including Special Operation Forces — shouldering the ever-increasing security burden in Somalia.

But this year is the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the infamous clash in which 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed when US Special Forces attempted to arrest Somalia’s most powerful warlord at the time, Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Images of a dead pilot being dragged through the dust of the Somali capital swiftly undermined a mission that had been intended to bring humanitarian relief and resulted in a US withdrawal two years later.

But the systems of corruption and manipulation of aid in Somalia remained, and have now been co-opted to finance a terrorist movement that controls about a third of the country and may become a magnet for ISIS jihadists on the run from their former caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

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Briefing Room

Somali forces foil al-Shabaab attack near capital

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MOGADISHU, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) — Somali forces repelled an attack by the al-Shabaab militant group near the capital city of Mogadishu Saturday night, local authorities said Sunday.

The al-Qaida-linked militants attacked Afgooye town, about 30 km southwest of Mogadishu, Afgooye police chief Abdulkadir Osman said.

“They attacked the town and our forces responded. The fighting lasted a while before our forces defeated them,” Osman told reporters, adding that “we are now in full control of Afgooye.”

The officer said the militants suffered injuries but did not indicate any casualties on his forces. “Three civilians were also injured in the attack,” he added.

Local residents said the fighting caused panic in the town. Bashir Mayow who lived in Afgooye told Xinhua that the clash was deadly.

“Al-Shabaab attacked us last night and the whole town was gripped by fear as Somali forces fought hard to push away the militants,” said Mayow.

The al-Shabaab militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

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