Somalia: Children, women most affected by fighting

Scores of women and children have been separated from their families or wounded in fighting between Somali government forces and remnants of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), sources said.
A source in southern Somalia, close to the area where air strikes have hit suspected UIC bases, told IRIN that some civilians, including women and children, "have been killed and others wounded".
There are reports of many children between the ages of five and 15 missing from the village of Hayo (10 km from the area where the air strikes have been taking place), he added. "We have no way of knowing how many dead or wounded are out there in the bush," another source said. "We cannot get to them and neither can the nomadic communities, for fear of being killed themselves."

In a statement, the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children-UK (SC), said they were very disturbed by reports that children and women were among the casualties of the aerial bombardment.

"Any continuation of conflict within Somalia would do much to compromise the modest gains that have been achieved … over the past 15 years," UNICEF Somalia representative, Christian Balslev-Olesen, said.

El Khidir Daloum, SC country director, said: "Children in Somalia, and in particular the south, are suffering the consequences of a triple humanitarian crisis: drought, flooding and now conflict.

"Unless the situation stabilises rapidly, no one can guarantee the safety of Somali children. More will be separated from their families, orphaned and vulnerable to abuse and neglect."

But in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi the United States ambassador, Michael Ranneberger, said: "Contrary to press reports, US actions have included only one strike against a group of al-Qaeda in southern Somalia. No civilians were injured as a result of this action."

UNICEF and SC said they were concerned by accounts that camps for internally displaced people had come under grenade attack. Information has also been received that children were randomly shot in the street while others risk being recruited to fight by re-emerging warlords.

Children had featured prominently in recent fighting as active combatants. "The agencies say this is unacceptable under any rules of engagement," UNICEF and SC said in a joint statement. "[We] demand that all children associated with armed forces or groups must be immediately released from their ranks or from detention centres where they might currently be held."

They noted that the fighting, which had displaced more than 65,000 people, had severely affected school enrolment, and restricted access for humanitarian workers to reach vulnerable populations.

The country's security situation remains fragile and attacks by unidentified persons on Ethiopian and government forces continue. At the same time, the government was continuing its discussions with community leaders in the city.

"Last night [Thursday] they [gunmen] attacked the Ambassador Hotel at 8:20 pm local time, where many government people including the chief of police, are staying," a local resident, who requested anonymity, said.

The attackers, he said, used grenade launchers and engaged government forces guarding the hotel for about 20 minutes before disappearing. "This sort of attack has become common in the city for the last week," he added. There were reports of casualties.

On Friday, six people were reported dead after gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade on the presidential compound in Mogadishu.

Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said it was "working very hard to bring the security situation in the city under control as soon as possible. There are consultations going on with community leaders to get the situation under control peacefully."

He said while the consultations were going on, the government was dealing with the insecurity. "We have already dismantled a number of roadblocks and arrested about 20 criminals," Dinari said. He added the crackdown would continue until the city was "safe and secure".

Residents living in areas with a military presence, however, were reported to be leaving for fear of being caught in a crossfire, said a civil society source.

12 January 2007 (IRIN)