By Mark Turner at the United Nations and Barney Jopson in Kenya
Ethiopia is accused of killing civilians with white phosphorus bombs, the US navy of attacking suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Puntland, and Eritrea of delivering surface-to-air missiles to Islamist militia, in a startling new report on Somalia by UN arms monitors.
Warning that the number of weapons in Somalia now exceeds that during the early 1990s, when the failed East African state was engulfed in civil war, the UN monitoring group describes persistent instability in which anti-government Islamist forces are far from a spent force, and former warlords are reasserting themselves.
From late last year to mid-June, the UN analysts whose previous report courted significant controversy with its contested claims of weapons and personnel flows between Somalia and the Middle East conclude that an Ethiopian invasion and African Union peacekeepers have failed to stop massive arms flows into the country.
Furthermore, the latest period has witnessed a drastic increase in piracy off the Somali coast, and pirate command centres are operating without hindrance at many coastal landing points.
In brief, Somalia is awash with arms, the report says. There is no clearly established authority that has the capability of exercising control over a majority (of the weapons).
Some of the most dramatic claims implicate Ethiopia and Eritrea, who are believed to be conducting a proxy war in the country, through their respective backing of the transitional government and Islamist and clan-based militia.
During a battle on April 13 between the Ethiopian military, which remains in the country, and the Shabaab, elite forces from the Islamic Courts Union, Ethiopian military forces resorted to using white phosphorus bombs approximately 15 Shabaab fighters and 35 civilians were killed.
Ethiopia denies the claims, saying it does not possess such weapons. The monitoring group obtained pictures of the area of impact of the bombs, and a soil sample analysed in Nairobi was consistent with their use.
Meanwhile, despite its conventional defeat by Ethiopia in December 2006-January 2007, the Islamic Courts Union has switched to guerilla and terrorist tactics, including suicide attacks and targeted assassinations. Recent arms seizures by the government represent only a small fraction of the total arms belonging to and hidden by the Shabaab.
Shabaab fighters shot down a Belarussian cargo plane in late March 2007 with an SA-18 surface to air missile, reported to be a part of a consignment of six SA-18s that had been delivered by Eritrea. The monitoring group has a video of the firing of the missile. Eritrea has denied involvement.
The monitors also say they received reports that on June 1 this year, the US Navy attacked by firing several times at suspected al-Qaeda operatives near the coastal village of Bargal, Puntland, Somalia.
When questioned, the US government said it had conducted several strikes in self-defence against al-Qaeda terrorist targets in Somalia.
Also of concern is the panel’s finding that warlords are now among the most important buyers of arms at the Bakaraaha arms markets, in Mogadishu, and are trying to regain control over their former fiefdoms (which they lost to the ICU in 2006).
The warlords are currently trying to reconstitute and arm their respective militias, some of which consist of as many as 500 fighters.
Separately, a long-awaited peace conference has entered its second week in Mogadishu as organisers seek to reconcile the country’s myriad clans, political factions and former warlords. But its success is likely to be hampered by the absence of two key constituencies: representatives of the the Islamic Courts Union and the powerful Hawiye clan. They refused to attend in protest against the continued presence of Ethiopian troops in the country and the interim government’s perceived lack of willingness to engage with its opponents.