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Briefing Room

U.S. troops risk inflaming clan conflict after deadly Somalia raid

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MOGADISHU (Reuters) – A raid involving U.S. troops in Somalia has caused a rift between the precarious U.S.-backed government and a powerful clan that says innocent farmers were massacred, months after President Donald Trump approved stepped-up operations there.

The U.S. Africa command, Africom, has acknowledged that U.S. forces participated in a ground operation in support of Somali troops in the village of Bariire last week, and says it is investigating reports of civilian deaths.

It did not reply to further questions from Reuters about the incident, the second mission in Somalia this year in which it has acknowledged the participation of U.S. ground troops. A Navy Seal was killed in a raid in May.

Last week’s raid took place in an area that had been occupied by al Shabaab Islamist militants but was recaptured by government forces earlier in August.

Residents from the Habar Gidir clan, a powerful group spread across southcentral Somalia, said some villagers had weapons, but only to protect themselves from a rival clan. They said the villagers had nothing to do with militants, who had been driven away before the government forces and U.S. troops launched their raid on Friday.

“It was after morning prayers when I heard gunshots. I jumped over a wall made of iron sheets and the boy went out through the small gate,” said Muktar Moalim Abdi, 47, whose 13-year-old nephew was killed in the raid, about 50 km (30 miles) from the capital.

“They told me the boy was shot as he tried to take cover under the banana trees,” said Abdi, one of 10 relatives of the victims that spoke to Reuters along with three witnesses of the raid itself. Their statements give the most detailed public account yet of last week’s raid.

The relatives and witnesses were not able to say conclusively whether U.S. forces present during the raid had opened fire, or whether all the shooting was carried out by the Somalis that the Americans were accompanying.

The Somali government’s initial account described those killed as Islamist fighters, although within hours it issued another statement acknowledging that civilians had reportedly been killed.

A government commission set up to investigate is due to report on Thursday. Somali officials have meanwhile declined to comment further.

Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991. It now has an internationally-backed government, supported by African peacekeepers, battling al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated militia which has attacked civilians in neighboring states.

It is one of half a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya, where Washington acknowledges conducting military operations against militants.

In March, Trump gave the U.S. military in Somalia greater authority to carry out strikes and raids, including without waiting for militants to attack U.S. allies. Ramped up operations followed, with Africom reporting eight U.S. airstrikes from May to August this year, compared to 13 for the whole of 2016.

In the case of last week’s raid, a veteran Western expert on the security situation in Somalia said it seemed likely that the U.S. troops had “been drawn into local clan dynamics” by whoever supplied their intelligence.

“The real question is, what was the source of the intelligence and why did they believe it?”

U.S. officials acknowledge that developing the intelligence needed to pursue al Shabaab takes longer than in, say, Iraq or Syria, where the U.S. military devotes vastly more resources. Somalia’s complex tribal dynamics are also a complicating factor.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Somalia as an “economy of force” effort for the U.S. military, meaning fewer resources were available there than on other battlefields.

GUNFIRE IN THE MORNING

Mohamed Hassan Amin said he and his pregnant wife survived because they ran outside and hid in a banana grove when the deadly gunfire began. They initially thought it was an attack by the rival clan and were relieved to see armored vehicles, which they thought meant the African peacekeeping force and government troops had come to keep them safe.

“My friend said, it looks like AMISOM and Somali forces came to rescue us,” Amin told Reuters by phone. Then, the Somali troops spotted them and surrounded them at gunpoint, he said. About a dozen white soldiers were present.

“The white men told us to lie down. A translator helping one asked ’how long have you been militants?’ We replied that we had never had links with al Shabaab.”

At that point, Somali troops who had previously met the farmers recognized them and told their colleagues to release them, he said. They were told to help collect the dead and injured, he said.

Among the dead were two 13-year-old boys and a 15-year-old, said survivors. Abdi Mohamed, 50, the uncle of one 13-year-old, said his nephew was an orphan working as a shepherd.

Abdi, the uncle of the other, said his nephew was initially only injured but bled to death. Mohamed Osman Aden, the farm owner’s nephew, said the third child was 15.

A clan elder who spoke to Reuters on Friday had given younger ages for the boys.

All three witnesses said no one from the community had fired at the soldiers. Reuters could not independently verify their accounts.

Before the raid, the men had already had four meetings with the soldiers and African Union peacekeepers, said farm owner Ahmed Hassan Sheikh Mohamed. The government wanted the villagers to disarm, but they were reluctant because of their long-standing feud with a rival clan.

Mohamed said the government troops who had driven al Shabaab fighters from the area earlier in August had told the villagers they no longer needed weapons. The villagers put eight guns into storage, but kept one gun in the hands of a watchman, who did not shoot when the soldiers approached.

“Who could fight armored vehicles?” Mohamed asked.

Since the raid, survivors and relatives have been permitted to travel to the capital to make their case, without being arrested as suspected al Shabaab fighters.

PUBLIC ANGER

At the Diplomat hotel in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, scores of relatives of the dead occupied every plastic chair, spilling into the corridors and parking lot, sitting on the ground and murmuring angrily.

The bodies were not buried, but were brought to the capital. They are being kept in a refrigerated container taken from a lobster truck and stashed in a nearby garage.

“We do not enjoy keeping the shrinking, wrinkling dead bodies of our brothers and uncles in a fridge for a sixth day. But more painful would be to bury the dead body of your innocent brother as a militant,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a nephew of one of the dead men.

The refusal to bury a body is a powerful and deeply distressing protest in Muslim culture, which demands that burial take place within 24 hours of death.

The families want blood money – traditionally 100 camels, worth about $100,000, for every dead male. More than that, they want an apology.

“We shall bury them if the government admits they were innocent farmers. If not, we shall keep them in the garage because we never bury militants,” said Aden.

If the clan is not placated, it could rob the government of a powerful ally in the important Shabelle region, site of some of Somalia’s most fertile farmland.

The clan have already been angered by a U.S. airstrike that killed at least 10 members of their pro-government militia last year, and by a death sentence for another clan member who killed a minister that he mistook for a militant.

A split with the government could mean their militia cools relations with Mogadishu at a time when Western allies are trying to bring anti-Shabaab forces closer together.

“The whole problem is the Somali government which brought in and allowed the U.S. to massacre our people,” shouted Halima Mohamed Afrah, the aunt to one of the men killed in Bariire.

“The government should openly say over the media that they killed innocent farmers. Admit it, compensate us and then take the killers to court … if these conditions are not met … Blood should be shed for blood.”

additional reporting by Feisal Omar in Mogadishu, Katharine Houreld and John Ndiso in Nairobi and Phillip Stewart in Washington; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Peter Graff

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Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Briefing Room

Somalia welcomes 41 nationals released from Indian jails, more to follow

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The Federal Government of Somalia on Friday welcomed home forty-one nationals who had been in Indian jails for piracy related offences.

The returnees were welcomed at the Mogadishu International Airport by Prime Minister Ali Hassan Khayre and other government officials.

A Voice of America journalist, Harun Maruf said the former detainees were released after negotiations between the two countries.

He added that: “They were part of 120 Somalis arrested by India navy after being suspected of involvement in piracy acts, some have served their jail terms.” Two of them are said to have died in prison.

The Prime Minister later wrote on Twitter that the government will continue to do all it takes to return Somalis languishing in jails outside the country. Reports indicate that 77 others will be freed in the coming months.

The Somali government in 2017 secured the release of over twenty of its nationals held in neighbouring Ethiopia’s jails.

The government was also instrumental in the release of a top Somali journalist who was jailed in Ethiopia.

The Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo government, however, attracted public outrage by handing over a Somali national to the Ethiopian government.

A move that was slammed by Somalis and by human rights groups who claimed Mogadishu had virtually handed him over to be tortured.

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Briefing Room

US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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