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“The Most Lawless War of Our Generation”–Fmr. U.N. Spokesperson on Somalia

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In Somalia, fierce clashes in Mogadishu are being described as some of the heaviest fighting in the city’s history. Some 329 people have been killed over the past 10 days. This comes just three weeks after another series of battles claimed at least 1,000 lives. The United Nations says more people — over 350,000 — have been displaced in Somalia in the past three months than anywhere else in the world. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Somalia, fierce fighting has killed over 320 people over the past 10 days. This comes just three weeks after another series of battles claimed at least a thousand lives. Agence France-Presse described Thursday’s clashes in Mogadishu as some of the heaviest fighting in the city’s history.

The fighting began in December when U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia. Four months ago today, Islamic fighters abandoned the capital, marking the official fall of the Council of Islamic Courts, which had controlled Mogadishu for six months last year.

A humanitarian catastrophe now looms over Somalia. The United Nations says more people have been displaced in Somalia in the past three months than anywhere else in the world. Some 350,000 people have fled fighting in Mogadishu since February, more than a third of its population. That makes the rate of displacement in Somalia over the past three months worse than Iraq. Many of the those displaced are camped on the outskirts of Mogadishu and lack food, medicine and clean water. There is also concern for those trapped inside the capital, where more than 600 people have died from acute diarrhea and cholera.

This is U.N. relief coordinator John Holmes.

JOHN HOLMES: There are stocks available in the area. If we can sort out the access problems, if we can step up our presence, in particular if we could achieve a ceasefire in Mogadishu and the surrounding area, then I think we will be able to cope with the problem, with some difficulty. But if the fighting continues at its present intensity, if there is no halt in that, if there is no political progress made, then we could indeed be facing a very serious situation indeed. I think already this is one of the — the biggest movement of population, displacement of population we’ve seen this year, in terms of numbers, particularly in terms of comparative numbers, compared to the populations of Mogadishu or indeed of Somalia as a whole, greater in that sense than Darfur or eastern Chad, and the problems there are serious enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi said Thursday his forces were now in control of Mogadishu. The BBC reports, for the first time in nine days, gunfire has stopped. Ethiopians and government troops are patrolling the city conducting house-to-house searches, as residents collect rotting bodies that have been abandoned in the streets.

The escalating war in Somalia has received little attention in the U.S. media especially on broadcast television. Using the Lexis database, Democracy Now! examined ABC, NBC and CBS’s coverage of Somalia in the evening newscasts over the past three months. The result may surprise you: ABC and NBC has not mentioned the war at all. CBS mentioned the war once on a Sunday night news broadcast. The network dedicated a total of three sentences to the story.

Salim Lone is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya and a former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq. He joins us today from London. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Salim.

SALIM LONE: Thank you for covering Somalia, Amy. As you said, the coverage is absolutely shameless.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, first, Salim, can you describe who the fighting forces are and who’s behind them?

SALIM LONE: Well, I mean, the key country there is Ethiopia. Their occupation forces have been there, in fact, long before the actual war began. They came in around September, October. But at the moment, those fighting the Ethiopians and the nominal transitional central government, which is really an absolutely puppet — it’s quite hapless. In fact, the Ethiopians don’t even deal with Somalis that their fighting through the transitional government. They go directly to the elders of the clans to try to negotiate ceasefires. But those fighting them are obviously the Hawiye Clan fighters who dominate Mogadishu. I mean, historically, they’re the largest clan in there. But there are also many others, not just Islamists, which is a codeword for terrorists, but there are many Somalis. In fact, most Somalis will not abide this occupation. I mean, this is what is most distressing about this fighting. All fighting is terrible, but you hope in the end something good comes out of it. But in this particular case, it is clear Somalis will not abide the Ethiopian occupation or the government they put in place there. So it is not going to be a successful war for the Somali government, for Ethiopia and, of course, for the U.S., which is the orchestrator of the whole adventure this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, you’re now in London. The British think tank Chatham House criticized the U.S. role in the war. The authors of the report write, “In an uncomfortably familiar pattern, general multilateral concern to support the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Somalia has been hijacked by unilateral actors, especially Ethiopia and the United States.”

SALIM LONE: Well, you know, this is par for the course these days. What they also should have mentioned — but it’s an excellent report, by the way. I really enjoyed reading it, and I’m so glad they were so candid. But one of the big issues here is not merely the unilateralism of the United States, but the inability of the international community and particularly the United Nations Security Council to try to play, if not an independent role, at least a moderating role. It is quite astonishing that for now three months, there has been terrible violence in Somalia, and yet we have not heard anything from the security council about how this carnage must stop. There is no interest whatsoever.

You know the death toll. I mean, you’ve given all the details. I don’t want to go into it. But let me add that women are being raped, that hospitals are being bombed. This is clearly a huge effort to intimidate and terrorize all those who come from clans who are fighting the government. They want to intimidate the civilians, because most of the death toll is of civilians. So this has been going on, and there has been no call whatsoever for this to stop.

You had Sir John Holmes there. He’s a Brit, who — I don’t know him personally, so I cannot speak for him. But clearly, he has been appointed, in fact, by the British to his crucial position as chief of humanitarian affairs.

So we are seeing the Security Council completely silent while these atrocities are going on. We are seeing Western governments completely silent. Nothing has come out of Washington. Nothing has come out of London. We now see, for the first time on Wednesday, the ambassador of Germany — and Germany holds the EU presidency now — the ambassador released a letter, which he had sent to Abdullah Yusuf, the president of the transitional government. It is a very candid and a very strong letter, and that’s wonderful. However, where was Germany? Where was the EU for all this period? Their silence has really given the green light for the Ethiopians to do the terrible things they’ve been doing.

The death toll now in Somalia is greater than it was in Lebanon. And you will recall, of course, that even then, the big powers — the U.S., U.K., even initially the U.N. — did not demand a ceasefire. But the world media was full of that story, and there were condemnations around the world for what the Israelis were doing. But, of course, Somalis and Africans don’t count as nearly much, because there has just been no international outcry at all. It’s not just the media. So we really have a problem there.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, we’re going to break and come back to this discussion. We’ll also play a comment or interaction in the State Department on what is happening right now in Somalia. Salim Lone, columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya, joining us from Britain. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Salim Lone. He is the former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq. He’s a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya and is joining us right now from London. Salim, I wanted to talk to you about the U.S. role in all of this. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Ethiopian foreign minister on April 23. At a news conference the next day, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said the two had discussed the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia. McCormack said the troops had “no desire to stay there any longer than they are needed,” but that they didn’t want to withdraw to, quote, open up a — “vacuum open up in Somalia.” A reporter questioned him about his comments. This is an excerpt.

REPORTER: Does it concern you at all that your little — your opening readout, your opening statements, with the exception of some of the proper names, could have applied exactly to the situation in Iraq right now? Does that bother — does that concern you at all?

SEAN McCORMACK: I’m not sure I see your point, Matt.

REPORTER: That the Ethiopians say that they don’t want to stay there any longer than they’re needed, but they don’t want to leave a vacuum. It just sounds —


REPORTER: — an awful lot like they’re taking a page from the administration’s thoughts on what to do in Iraq.

SEAN McCORMACK: No. I mean, they’re —

REPORTER: But I guess — so my question is, are you concerned that they might be seeing the beginning or the —- in fact, the middle of an Iraq-style insurgency going on, obviously not directed at U.S. soldiers -—

SEAN McCORMACK: Right. Right, right, right.

REPORTER: — but the same kind of thing. Are you concerned about that?

SEAN McCORMACK: The situations are completely separate. They are — you know, each are sui generis, but you are in each case concerned about leaving the field to a group of violent extremists who do not have an interest in building up the institutions of a democratic state, so in that sense, in that sense, there are similarities. I think certainly the specifics of each situation are quite different, and the histories are quite different. And I think the level of intensity of fighting in Iraq is quite different than you’re seeing in Somalia, and the scale of it is a lot smaller.

AMY GOODMAN: State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack. The reporter went on to ask him whether the United States is calling for a ceasefire.

REPORTER: Are you calling for a ceasefire in Somalia, or are you urging the Ethiopians to go for these insurgents with as much intensity as they could?

SEAN McCORMACK: You don’t want to see any more violence in Somalia. Everybody would like that to be the case, but there are clearly people there, individuals who are intent upon using violence in order to further a so-called political cause. And we have seen that in other areas around the world. And what can’t be allowed to happen is for those forces to gain a foothold to develop a safe haven, from which they could possibly launch attacks against other states in the region and further.

REPORTER: So you’re not calling for a ceasefire?

SEAN McCORMACK: We want to see an end to the violence. But the real way to get an end to the violence is (a) stabilize the security situation, and (b) find a political situation that is workable for the major political factions in Somali life that have an interest in actually building a different kind of Somalia, as opposed to the one we’ve seen for the past few decades.

AMY GOODMAN: State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack. Salim Lone, columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya, your response?

SALIM LONE: Well, I mean, I’m very interested in the Iraq analogy, and it is really multiple, apart from what was already said there. The contrasts are striking, as well. But let me add to the analogy, actually, that May 1 is approaching. That was the day when on the — right after the war, President Bush said that his mission had been accomplished. We have the same statement coming out of the prime minister of Somalia yesterday, that the mission has been accomplished and the insurgents have been wiped out.

But let’s look at the other contrasts, which are very fascinating. In Iraq, the world body, the Security Council, for the first time in many years since the Soviet Union collapsed, stood up to the United States and refused, despite enormous pressure, to authorize a U.N. war in Iraq. In Somalia’s case, it is precisely the opposite.

To begin with, the lawlessness of this particular war is astounding. I mean, this is the most lawless war of our generation. You know, all aggressive wars are illegal. But in this particular one, there have been violations of the Charter and gross violations of international human rights, but these are commonplace. But, in addition, there have been very concrete violations by the United States, to begin with, of two Security Council resolutions. The first one was the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, which the United States has been routinely flaunting for many years now. But then the U.S. decided that that resolution was no longer useful, and they pushed through an appalling resolution in December, which basically gave the green light to Ethiopia to invade. They pushed through a resolution which said that the situation in Somalia was a threat to international peace and security, at a time when every independent report indicated, and Chatham House’s report on Wednesday also indicated, that the Islamic Courts Union had brought a high level of peace and stability that Somalia had not enjoyed in 16 years.

So here was the U.N. Security Council going along with the American demand to pass a blatantly falsified U.N. resolution. And that resolution actually was a violation. It contravened the U.N. Charter. You know, the U.N. Charter is like the American Constitution. Legislators pass laws, but they have to be in conformity with the Constitution. In this particular case, the Charter is the U.N.'s constitution, and the Security Council cannot — it's not allowed to really pass laws or rules that violate the Charter. And yet, who is going to correct them? So this —

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, on April 8, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration recently allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea, in violation of international sanctions. The U.S. allowed the arms delivery to go through in January, shortly after Ethiopia invaded Somalia, from North Korea. Salim?

SALIM LONE: Well, I mean, this just, you know, shows the lawlessness, the complete lack of pretense, even, to try to honor these resolutions. The big powers decide what resolutions are passed. But now what we see is the big powers then decide, are we actually going to honor the resolution that we just passed?

I mean, I want to give you an incredible example of how the Security Council has become a plaything almost. There was a time when Security Council resolutions had gravitas. For example, everybody knew Resolution 242, asking Israel to vacate the Occupied Territories in exchange for peace. But now, it’s a plaything.

And I want to give the example of the bombings in Spain in the year 2004. Just before the Spanish election, there was this terrible atrocity, as you know. About 200 people, Spaniards, were killed in the terrorist attacks on the trains. Because it was on the eve of the election, the Aznar government, afraid that if it was known that this attack was by terrorists, might lose the election, got the U.S. to support a Security Council resolution which condemned the Basque separatists for the attack. And the Security Council went along with that. I mean, a day later, it became clear that it was a total lie. So the Security Council resolutions really have no meaning now, because they can be passed and violated at will, especially by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, the Dow Jones news wire has recently reported that the U.S.-backed Somali prime minister wants to pass a new oil law to encourage foreign oil companies to return to Somalia. Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corporation once had exploration contracts in Somalia, but the companies left the country in 1991. How significant is this in the U.S. involvement in Somalia today?

SALIM LONE: Well, you know, as you’ve discussed before, Somalia itself and the region, the Horn of Africa, is newly oil-rich. Kenya has some oil. Oil is the key to domination for the United States — global domination, I mean. But it is going about, you know, the wrong way to get that oil. The U.S. is also worried that its welcome in the Middle East is diminishing, and they need to make sure — both they want to encircle the Middle East with the oil field, and they want to make sure they have Somalia and other countries handy for the oil.

But this — you know, the prime minister’s attempt to lure Western oil companies is on a par with his crying wolf about al-Qaeda at every turn. Every time you interview a Somalia official, the first thing you hear is al-Qaeda and terrorists. They’re using that. No one believes it. No one believes it at all, because all independent reports say the contrary. But they are using that to try to develop support.

And, you know, this is why it is so important. Europe has now been coming into the forefront with its concern. It had this report about major human rights violations had occurred a month ago in Mogadishu. And the Europeans are afraid that they might be complicit in those, because they were supporting the warring — the groups that were committing those atrocities. Germany, as I said, released that letter on Wednesday. Even the American ambassador has written to Abdullah Yusuf, the president. I mean, they are really writing letters to the Somali president. They will not raise this issue in the Security Council. They will not raise this issue in Washington or London. They want to keep this as a small African issue.

And it is so important for all of us to put pressure on the governments in Europe, in particular, and on Africa, too. I mean, Africa is weak. It cannot really take strong stands. In my own country, Kenya, we have played a terrible role in these extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo Bay that are going on. But, of course, one leading opposition, the candidate in Kenya, said that the US has promised to support the government in the elections at the end of this year in exchange for the terrible things it has been doing. So Africa is weak —

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, I want to ask you quickly, as you talk about Guantanamo, this secret prison in Ethiopia — not clear how many people are being held there, if this is one of the black sites, one of the prisons that are not very well known about in the world that the U.S. is involved with. But we do know that Amir Mohamed Meshal is there. He is a New Jersey young man from Tinton Falls. Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy Newspapers reported April 24th, Ethiopia has changed its mind and decided for the time being not to free the American Muslim who was captured trying to flee war-torn Somalia and was held without charge in Kenya and Ethiopia for more than four months. Can you talk about this secret prison?

SALIM LONE: Well, you know, there are — did you say “secret prison”?


SALIM LONE: Yes, yes, yes. You know, I mean, this whole enterprise — the kidnappings on Kenyan streets, the grabbing refugees coming across the border — has a “Made in America” stamp on it, because you’ve seen it all happen before. And these secret prisons, the U.S. denies any responsibility in this whole operation. And yet, we know that CIA and FBI officials are in those prisons interviewing the inmates.

We also know, by the way, that many of the people who have disappeared are not in those secret prisons. Where are those people? Have they be killed? Are they being tortured somewhere else? This is, you know, utter lawlessness.

And we must try to get the Europeans, in particular — I keep appealing to the Europeans, because I know — I speak to many European ambassadors in Kenya — I know that they’re privately very concerned about what is going on. And we must get them to do more. It is fine to indicate there are war crimes to be committed. It’s fine to say this must stop, and hospitals shouldn’t be bombed, and you can’t keep relief away from suffering people. But they must go beyond that. They must take an initiative, or talk privately to the United States and say, “Look, this is a lost cause. We are only creating suffering, and we’re creating problems for ourselves, because there will be blowback on this. There will be animosities and angers, which will affect Europe, America, Africa, everywhere.” So they must [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general’s call for a coalition of the willing to go into Somalia? You’re a former U.N. official.

SALIM LONE: You know, it is so disgraceful. For him to try to get the Security Council — that’s what he proposes, the Security Council, in case there is no peace in Somalia in the meeting in June, in mid-June, to discuss it in the Security Council — for him to propose that the U.N. should now go in to do what the U.S. and Ethiopia have been unable to do, which is basically to impose a client regime on Somalia, it’s just absolutely disgraceful. I mean, I read that report to the Security Council, and it is hard to believe that Mr. Ban Ki-moon is the secretary-general of the United Nations. It is so blatantly and comprehensively one-sided. There is not a word about the fact that the Ethiopians are there without any international legitimacy. They’re occupiers. They violated the U.N. Charter. They were not in any danger of being attacked, and they invaded. So this notion must also — this notion that a coalition of the willing must be formed — as you know, that was how the first Gulf War was fought. And if this coalition comes into place, which I hope will not, it will merely internationalize the crisis and make things even worse. But I hope the Europeans, in particular, and the Africans who are on the Security Council will not allow that to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Salim Lone, columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya, former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq when it was bombed there, attacked there, several years ago, now living in Kenya, speaking to us, though, from London.

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