European lawyers are examining whether alleged war crimes committed by Ethiopian and Somali troops in Mogadishu last week could expose the EU to accusations of complicity because of its formidable financial assistance to the two countries.
A massive Ethiopian-led offensive to pacify an insurgency in the Somali capital left nearly 400 people dead between March 29 and April 1. Human rights groups say many of the victims were civilians and accuse the Ethiopians of using tanks and attack helicopters to fire indiscrimi nately into densely populated areas. Some analysts in Somalia have backed the war crimes allegations, saying that specific clans in Mogadishu have been targeted for "cleansing" by pro-government forces.
Reports of the attacks prompted the European commission's senior adviser on security for Somalia to send a letter, seen by the Guardian, to Eric van der Linden, the commission's head of delegation in Kenya, on April 2, alerting him to the "significance of the events of the past four days in Mogadishu in terms of the international law on conflict".
The security adviser, who has wide experience in African conflict zones, including Darfur, said the head of the African Union peacekeeping mission, Amisom and comprising 1,200 Ugandans, might also be guilty of war crimes for failing to act responsibly. Ethiopian helicopters used the Amisom-controlled airport in Mogadishu as a base for launching helicopter attacks and flying in reinforcements.
"I need to advise you that there are strong grounds to believe that the Ethiopian government and the transitional federal government of Somalia and the Amisom force commander . . . have through commission or omission violated the Rome statute of the international criminal court [ICC]," he wrote. He accused Ethiopian and Somali troops of breaking international law by intentionally attacking civilians in Mogadishu and by ordering their displacement.
Ethiopia ousted the Somali Council of Islamic Courts from power in late December but has been unable to pacify Mogad ishu, which is controlled by the powerful Hawiye clan. Though the insurgents are former Islamist fighters and clan and warlord militias, the Ethiopians and the Somali government have singled out two subclans as bearing the greatest responsibility. Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord despised in the capital, said recently that civilians in areas where insurgents operated would be "bombarded".
Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda vehemently reject the war crimes allegations. Mr van der Linden said it was up the ICC to look at war crimes. "Is there any suspicion that this is what occurred? To my mind, no. But the person who wrote the letter is a security specialist, so I have sent it to our headquarters for legal experts to look at."
Lawyers will look at the security adviser's warning about the European commission's potential culpability as the largest donor to both Somalia and Ethiopia and as a big financial backer of the peacekeeping mission. "In regards the above-mentioned violations of international law, there arise urgent questions of responsibility and potential complicity in the commission of war crimes by the European commission and its partners, specifically with regard to the current and ongoing financial and technical assistance being provided by the EC to any of the parties who may have committed war crimes," the letter read.
One Somali expert, who requested anonymity, said the chaotic state of the country meant war crimes charges were unlikely to reach the ICC.
Strong support from the US for Ethiopia's incursion is another potential obstacle to investigation. But the expert and another regional analyst said it was time the international community spoke out against abuses. "When the Sudan government bombs villages in Darfur, it's called genocide," the second analyst said. "But when the Ethiopians bomb civilian areas . . . nothing is said. Is it because this is perceived to be part of the war on terror?"