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Despite Exit of Militants, Violence Continues to Grip Somali City and Raises Worries


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Friday, July 05, 2013

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The strategic Somali port city of Kismayu, once a stronghold for Islamist militants, has continued to descend into violence even though the militants have withdrawn, raising concerns that greater fragmentation, not peace, awaits parts of this stricken country.

The fighting raging in Kismayu involves rival clans vying for power after the militant withdrawal from the city last year. In recent clashes, at least 71 people were killed and more than 300 were wounded, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

The city “remains a volatile area,” the organization said in a statement, “with observed increase in fighting among warring factions, and other incidences of violence such as land mines and hand grenade attacks.”

In Somalia, ousting one set of armed fighters often seems to mean that others will step in. While most international attention has focused on the capital, Mogadishu, which still suffers deadly attacks but has experienced a period of relative calm in recent years, there has been growing violence in the southern region bordering on Kenya, especially over the past month.

Kismayu was once a vital port for the Shabab, a ruthless militant group. But last year, the group withdrew from the city rather than face Kenyan forces, who marched into the country in 2011 to try to keep the chaos of Somalia from crossing the border and threatening Kenya’s substantial commercial and tourism interests.

But instead of bringing peace to the city, the retreat of the Shabab has led to a scramble for power among various clans, with warlords rushing in to fill the vacuum left behind by the militant group.

The Somali government in Mogadishu has accused the Kenyan military of siding with a militia led by Ahmed Madobe, known as the Raskamboni Brigade. The Kenyan military has said it remains neutral.

Even before it invaded Somalia, the Kenyan military secretly armed clan-based militias there as part of a strategy to create a buffer against the country’s instability.

The Somali government said in a letter to African Union leaders on Sunday that Kenyan-led forces “have used, indiscriminately, high-caliber weapons,” which had resulted in “heavy civilian casualties.”

In a news conference, Somalia’s deputy minister for information, Abdishakur Ali Mire, called for “a more neutral African Union force.”

The letter also claimed that the clashes in Kismayu had halted momentum in the fight against the Shabab, which threatened to continue its war against the “invaders” even after pulling out of major cities. Though drastically weakened, the Shabab last month carried out a deadly assault on a United Nations compound in Mogadishu.

Nicholas Kay, the United Nations special representative for Somalia, last week called for a halt to the fighting in Kismayu.

The World Health Organization confirmed that civilians had been struck in the cross-fire in the southern port city. Many of the wounded had to be sent to Mogadishu and Galkayo, near the Ethiopian border, for care.

“The moment there are civilians involved in the casualties, that’s serious,” said Dr. Omar Saleh, the health organization’s emergency humanitarian action coordinator for Somalia. “You get chest injuries, brain injuries, abdominal injuries, the fractures and burns that come from the heavy weapons.”

The fighting in Kismayu, according to the health organization, has had “a profound impact on civilians and humanitarian aid work,” displacing civilians, raising the risk of a cholera outbreak and delaying a polio campaign.

“It’s normal people who pay the price,” Dr. Saleh said.


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