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UN Official Alarmed At Somali Civilian Casualties

Top UN relief official 'alarmed' at civilian casualties in Somalia

7 August 2008 - The top United Nations humanitarian official today expressed his growing alarm at the continuing abuses and civilian casualties in the conflict in Somalia, as well as the challenges faced by humanitarian workers who are increasingly the target of violence.

"All parties to this conflict have an obligation under international law to protect civilians and to refrain from indiscriminate attacks," John Holmes, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, said. "Yet it seems at every turn, the death toll of ordinary Somalis is growing. Far too many of them are women, children or aid workers who have no part in this conflict."

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that dozens of civilians have died in bomb and mortar attacks in Mogadishu in the past week. The deaths, along with the current massive displacement of civilians by fighting in Belet Weyne and the latest killing of an aid worker, underline the toll conflict is taking on civilian populations and the relief operation.

On Sunday, 20 women participating in a food-for-work street-cleaning programme were killed when a roadside bomb was detonated. Forty other civilian bystanders were injured. The following day, at least 10 civilians were killed when a mortar shell landed on a residence in Mogadishu.

Outside Mogadishu, recent fighting between Ethiopian forces and insurgents in the town of Belet Weyne, 300 kilometres north of the capital, has displaced at least 70,000 civilians. The displaced are scattered in villages and rural areas along the Shabelle River where they are reported to be living in dire conditions and in urgent need of food, water, medical care and shelter.

This military confrontation also resulted in significant civilian casualties and destruction of property, including the office of an international non-governmental organization (NGO) which was hit by artillery shells. OCHA says that international humanitarian and human rights norms appeared to have been disregarded by all sides to the conflict during the fighting, with at least 20 civilians killed and more than a dozen injured. Reports indicate that civilians were also subject to arbitrary arrest, detention and even execution.

OCHA stresses that aid workers, who have been subjected to attacks in increasing numbers, are more and more challenged to reach people with the assistance they require. Yesterday, the manager of an orphanage in the Afgooye corridor, where more than 300,000 displaced people have fled, was shot and murdered by unknown gunmen. Twenty-one aid-related workers have been killed in Somalia since January.

"The humanitarian situation has deteriorated steadily in the 18 months that I have been Emergency Relief Coordinator," Mr. Holmes added, "and has now reached unprecedented desperate levels, even in the context of Somalia over the last 18 years."

Mr. Holmes urged all parties to allow unhindered humanitarian access wherever assistance is required by populations in need and to respect the neutrality and safety of humanitarian workers.

Nearly 2.6 million people in Somalia need humanitarian assistance, a 40 per cent increase in the number of vulnerable people since January 2008. Some 3.5 million Somalis, or almost 50 per cent of the total population, could require help by the end of the year, according to OCHA.

ENDS

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