UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
ETHIOPIA-SOMALIA: More people flee as fighting spreads
NAIROBI, 24 Dec 2006 (IRIN) - For the first time, air attacks have been reported in Somalia's escalating conflict between forces of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by Ethiopian troops, while ground conflict was reported from previously unaffected areas in Central Somalia.
An international NGO official told IRIN that population displacement was expected in the conflict areas, and that news of aerial bombardment might cause people to move due to fear of further air attacks. Organizations will be trying to "scope out" where displaced populations are moving to, but, the official said that at the moment, "where they're going to go, people don't know... a lot of people may move out of the way".
An eyewitness told IRIN that aircraft, allegedly Ethiopian, had struck areas near the town of Beletweyne in Southern Somalia this morning. "Two jet airplanes bombarded the town this morning. They came back five times," said Ahmed Gure of the Somali Red Crescent Society (SRCS) in Beletweyne. He said the attack took about an hour. Gure said many of the town's population were only just starting to return from temporary camps after they were displaced by recent flooding, and "can ill-afford to move again, but I am afraid if the situation deteriorates they will move again." Many families have already started to leave the town, said a local journalist, claiming that four people, including a young girl, were killed by the air raids. "Hundreds of people have started leaving, fearing that the planes will return," said Umar Muhumad Keyow of Radio Shabelle.
Meanwhile, a WFP-chartered Antonov-12 aircraft today air dropped 14 MT of food to Afmadow in Southern Somalia, as part of a US$16.6 million special flood relief operation in Kenya and Somalia. Afmadow is cut of from road access by floods. Fifty trucks carrying food to Afmadow have been stuck in mud for seven weeks, according to a WFP statement issued today. "We are constantly reviewing our operations in view of the Ethiopian air activity", said Peter Smerdon, regional WFP spokesperson, "but we are still planning another airdrop on Monday [25 December]".
International media reported that Ethiopian government has for the first time admitted that it has troops fighting in Somalia. The BBC quoted Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu as saying that, "The Ethiopian government has taken self-defensive measures and started counter-attacking the aggressive extremist forces of the Islamic Courts and foreign terrorist groups."
Fighting began four days ago around the town of Baidoa, the seat of the TFG, but spread on Sunday to the town of Beletweyne, 350km north of Mogadishu, and Bandiradley in Central Somalia, about 60km south of Galka'ayo. In Bandiradley, heavy fighting was reported on Sunday morning, a local resident told IRIN. "The town came under attack and the two sides are still fighting," he said. He added that many families have left and many "more are waiting for a lull in the fighting, so they can leave."
An international NGO manager with teams in areas affected by the current conflict told IRIN that the organisation had raised its security threat assessment for Beletweyne today, and that staff were under instruction to "hibernate" at home and, if they were not originally from the area, to plan to relocate. Both Baidoa and Galkaayo were already categorized at the most severe level, the official added. Humanitarian agencies in Somalia have been struggling to respond to drought, flood and conflict over the last year.
In a statement issued on Sunday, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche urged all the warring parties "to comply with the rule of the international humanitarian law to spare the lives of those not involved in the hostilities... indiscriminate shelling is a clear violation of the laws of war and has a devastating impact on the most vulnerable people." Laroche said both sides should ensure unconditional humanitarian access.
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