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Somalia: UN voices alarm at plight of trapped civilians as fighting intensifies

25 February 2011 – The United Nations today voiced alarm over the plight of Somali civilians caught up in the fighting pitting forces of the country’s transitional government, who are backed by African Union peacekeepers, against insurgents of the Al-Shabaab armed group.

“We are particularly worried for the civilian population caught up in what appears to be a coordinated offensive against Al-Shabaab militants on multiple fronts, namely in Mogadishu, Beled Weyne in Hiiraan region, and Beled Hawo in the Gedo region,” Melissa Fleming, spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

Troops of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the forces of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) launched an offensive against Al-Shabaab positions in the Dayniile and Hodanin neighbourhoods of Mogadishu on Wednesday.

UNHCR said that Ethiopian soldiers and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, a militia allied to the TFG, are also reported to have attacked Al-Shabaab fighters in Beled Weyne, central Somalia, and in the town of Bulla Hawo, close to Somalia’s border with Kenya and Ethiopia.

Some 300 Somalis fleeing the fighting have crossed the border into Kenya over the past few days, the agency reported. “We have received reports from them of many injuries. Other civilians, including women, children and the elderly, remain trapped and unable to reach safety,” said Ms. Fleming.

She said UNHCR fears that the fighting could squeeze those displaced into three fronts where they will be unable to escape to seek refuge in either Ethiopia, Kenya or in Somalia’s north-eastern Puntland region.

“We again urge all armed groups and forces in Somalia to avoid targeting civilian areas and to ensure that civilians are not being placed in harm’s way,” said Ms. Fleming. “Our Somalia operation has deployed staff to the Kenyan town of Mandera, near the Somalia border, while an emergency team from the Dadaab refugee camp is on stand-by,” she added.

Some 2,000 emergency relief kits, comprising shelter materials, blankets and kitchen sets, have already been dispatched from the Kenyan port city of Mombasa for distribution to those displaced from Beled Hawo and other areas who have sought refuge in the Gedo region.

UNHCR and a local partner have also distributed 2,500 emergency relief kits in Mogadishu’s Dharkenley district and more relief aid distributions are planned in the coming weeks depending on the security situation, Ms. Fleming said.

Somalia generates the highest number of refugees in the world, after Afghanistan and Iraq. There are an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced persons inside Somalia and more than 680,000 Somalis live as refugees in neighbouring countries, according to UNHCR.

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