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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

US military responsible for instability in Somalia: Analyst

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The US is increasing its military involvement in Africa to destabilize the continent’s governments and gain control over their resources and strategic ports, an African American researcher in Washington says.

The Pentagon revealed on Thursday that the United States now has some 500 troops on the ground in Somalia even as it denies a “build-up” of forces in the African country.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has also said that there have been 28 US airstrikes in Somalia this year, mostly from drones and against purported al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants.

“Somalia is a very important area for both American businesses as well as a means to counter-balance against its regional adversaries,” Randy Short told Press TV on Friday.

“In the case of Somalia, Somalia is rich in oil, gold and it has got its ports in the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean,” Short said.

“Any instability in Somalia is Unites States’ fault,” he said. “The United States has been tampering with Somalia for the better part of thirty five years.”
The US is deploying militant groups and mercenaries to Africa to “create problems to justify the armed presence of US forces in places like Niger, the Central African Republic, Mali and of course Somalia,” he said.

The US military recently conducted six straight days of airstrikes in Somalia — from last Thursday to Tuesday, according to US media.

AFRICOM was established in 2008 under then US President George W. Bush and strengthened and enhanced the following year during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The force has been operating in at least 35 countries across the African continent.

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Briefing Room

Saving Somalia Through Debt Relief

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KEVIN WATKINS

Kevin Charles Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK

Somalia needs humanitarian aid to stem its short-term suffering, but that cash will not break the country’s deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. To do that, the IMF must forgive Somalia’s crushing debt, just as it has for nearly every other heavily indebted poor country.

LONDON – Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, once asked his country’s creditors a blunt question: “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?” That was in 1986, before the public campaigns and initiatives that removed much of Africa’s crushing and unpayable debt burden. But Nyerere’s question still hangs like a dark cloud over Somalia.

Over the last year, an unprecedented humanitarian effort has pulled Somalia back from the brink of famine. As the worst drought in living memory destroyed harvests and decimated livestock, almost $1 billion was mobilized in emergency aid for nutrition, health, and clean water provision. That aid saved many lives and prevented a slow-motion replay of the 2011 drought, when delayed international action resulted in nearly 260,000 deaths.

Yet, even after these recent efforts, Somalia’s fate hangs in the balance. Early warning systems are pointing to a prospective famine in 2018. Poor and erratic rains have left 2.5 million people facing an ongoing food crisis; some 400,000 children live with acute malnutrition; food prices are rising; and dry wells have left communities dependent on expensive trucked water.

Humanitarian aid remains essential. Almost half of Somalia’s 14 million people need support, according to UN agencies. But humanitarian aid, which is often volatile and overwhelmingly short-term, will not break the deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. If Somalia is to develop its health and education systems, economic infrastructure, and the social protection programs needed to build a more resilient future, it needs predictable, long-term development finance.

Debt represents a barrier to that finance. Somalia’s external debt is running at $5 billion. Creditors range from rich countries like the United States, France, and Italy, to regional governments and financial institutions, including the Arab Monetary Fund.

But Somalia’s debt also includes $325 million in arrears owed to the International Monetary Fund. And there’s the rub: countries in arrears to the IMF are ineligible to receive long-term financing from other sources, including the World Bank’s $75 billion concessional International Development Association (IDA) facility.

Much of the country’s current debt dates to the Cold War, when the world’s superpower rivalry played out in the Horn of Africa. Over 90% of Somalia’s debt burden is accounted for by arrears on credit advanced in the early 1980s, well before two-thirds of today’s Somali population was born.

Most of the lending then was directed to President Siad Barre as a reward for his abandonment of the Soviet Union and embrace of the West. Military credits figured prominently: over half of the $973 million in US debt is owed to the Department of Defense. Somalia got state-of-the-art weaponry, liberally financed by loans. The IMF was nudged into guaranteeing repayment through a structural adjustment program.  Repaying the debt today would cost every Somali man, woman, and child $361.

None of this would matter if Somalia had qualified for debt reduction. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), created in response to the great debt relief campaigns of the 1990s, has written off around $77 billion in debt for 36 countries. Somalia is one of just three countries that have yet to qualify. The reason: the arrears owed to the IMF. (Eritrea and Sudan have also not qualified, for similar reasons).

The IMF view is that Somalia, like earlier HIPC beneficiaries, should establish a track record of economic reform. This will delay a full debt write-off for up to three years, exclude Somalia from long-term development finance, and reinforce its dependence on emergency aid. Other creditors have endorsed this approach through silent consent.

Somalia deserves better. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government has demonstrated a commitment to economic reform, improved accountability, and transparency. For two years, it has adhered to an IMF program, achieving targets for improving public finance and the banking sector. More needs to be done, especially in terms of domestic resource mobilization. But this is the first Somali government to provide the international community with a window of opportunity to support recovery. We must capitalize on it.

Waiting three more years as Somalia ticks the IMF’s internal accounting boxes would be a triumph of bureaucratic complacency over human needs. Without international support, Somalia’s government lacks the resources needed to break the deadly cycle of drought, hunger, and poverty.

Somalia’s children need investment in health, nutrition, and schools now, not at some point in the indefinite future. Investing in irrigation and water management would boost productivity. With drought-related livestock and crop losses estimated at around $1.5 billion, government-supported cash payment programs would help aid recovery, strengthen resilience, and build trust.

The benefits of these investments would extend to security. Providing the hope that comes with education, health care, and the prospect of a job is a far more effective weapon than a drone to combat an insurgency that feeds on despair, poverty, joblessness, and the absence of basic services.

There is an alternative to IMF-sponsored inertia on debt relief. The World Bank and major creditors could convene a creditor summit to agree to terms for a prompt debt write-off. More immediately, the World Bank could seek its shareholders’ approval for a special mechanism – a “pre-arrears clearance grant” – that would enable Somalia to receive IDA financing. There is a precedent for this: In 2005, the US championed World Bank financing for Liberia, which at the time had significant IMF debt after emerging from civil war.

The technicalities can be discussed and the complexities resolved. But we should not lose sight of what is at stake. It is indefensible for the IMF and other creditors to obstruct Somalia’s access to financing because of arrears on a debt incurred three decades ago as much through reckless lending as through irresponsible borrowing.

Somalia’s children played no part in creating that debt. They should not have to pay for it with their futures.

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Briefing Room

UNSC votes to extend sanctions on Eritrea and Somalia

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The United Nations Security Council has voted to extend an arms embargo imposed on Eritrea and Somalia for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab. The decision comes barely a week after a panel of experts called for the lifting of sanctions particularly on Somalia. CGTN’s Liling Tan filed this report from New York

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