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400 Die in Mogadishu’s Worst Fighting in 15 years

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Nearly 400 people have been killed in Somalia since Thursday in what has been described as the worst fighting in the capital of Mogadishu in 15 years. Most of the fighting has been between U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops and Somali fighters allied to the Somali Council of Islamic Courts. The U.N. is estimating more than 47,000 people have fled Mogadishu since March 21. We speak with Salim Lone, a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya and a former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Africa, nearly 400 civilians have been killed and 550 wounded in fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian-backed troops in the Somali capital of Mogadishu just since Thursday, this according to a local human rights group. The toll, from the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation, was the first comprehensive count of casualties from what aid agencies are calling the worst fighting in Somalia in 15 years.

Nearly 50,000 people have fled Mogadishu in the last ten days, according to the U.N. refugee agency. A total of 96,000 people left their homes during February and March.

Ethiopian tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships have fought against guerrillas armed with machine guns, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. The guerrilla forces comprise fighters allied to the Somali Council of Islamic Courts and clan militias who are opposed to the transitional government and the Ethiopian occupation.

A lull in fighting on Monday gave residents a chance to pull several hundred bodies from the streets. Local hospitals have been overwhelmed with casualties.

This is the director of the Madina Hospital, Dr. Sheikhdon Salad Elmi.

DR. SHEIKHDON SALAD ELMI: We don’t have all our the hospital staff. Many of them could not reach the hospital because of the fighting. The number of casualties we received is a small percentage compared to the real casualties in the field.

AMY GOODMAN: A small African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia of some 1,200 Ugandan soldiers has failed to stem the violence. While the four days of fierce fighting subsided after a truce was negotiated Sunday, hundreds more Ethiopian troops have been seen arriving in Mogadishu over the weekend.

Salim Lone is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya and a former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’ll talk about what’s happening in Somalia, also in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Salim Lone, columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya, former spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq, joining us in our firehouse studio for the few days he’s in New York, then returning to Kenya. It’s great to have you with us.

SALIM LONE: Great to be here, Amy. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening in Somalia today.

SALIM LONE: You know, you describe the terrible scenes that are going on in Mogadishu. I just want to add that this is not only a terrible war, but also the most lawless war. It violates clearly — the invasion by Ethiopia — the U.N. Charter. The support of the U.S. on the attacks by the U.S. violated the U.N. Charter. But, in addition, there are two explicit U.N. resolutions by Security Council that this violates. The U.N. Security Council resolution in December said there should be no troops from regional — neighboring countries going into Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force. And yet we have Ethiopian troops there, not as part of a peacekeeping force.

It’s also turned the whole region into a giant Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights Watch reported that over 100 people were kidnapped in Kenya. Kenya, the most stable and a very law-abiding country in Africa, was forced to kidnap suspected supporters of the ICU, the Islam Courts, and to hand them over to Somalia, which in turn handed most of them over to Ethiopia, where they have disappeared. So this is really a terrible war.

And another reason it’s so terrible is because for six months last year, from June to December, as reported by Democracy Now!, as reported by The New York Times, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Xinhua News Agency, every media in the world reported that the Islamic Courts Union had brought a high level of stability to Somalia, and they had done so without the massive use of force. So this is just, you know, a classic example of the U.S. overreaching, relentless drive for domination, rather than caring for the stability and security of small nations.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S.’s interest here?

SALIM LONE: Oh, it’s so very clear. First of all, this is a crucial region. It’s the Horn of Africa. Somalia is at the heart of Horn of Africa. You have the Red Sea, through which, you know, tankers and military armadas flow every day. It’s also a newly oil-rich region. We’ve had the Somali president in that region twice in a year trying to negotiate deals. So, the U.S., what they wanted in Somalia was what they wanted in Iraq. I mean, the similarities are quite astonishing. It’s just that the world knows about Iraq. The media here does not cover Somalia at all, except as world news.

The U.S. began to say — once the Islamic Court Union became dominant in Somalia last year, it began to say, “There is terrorism there,” just like it said about Saddam Hussein, that he was linked to terrorists. It also began — in Iraq, we had the weapons of mass destruction; well, we have a weapon of mass destruction, according to the U.S., in Somalia, which is Muslims. Islamists are just routinely now conflated with extremists. So it gives the U.S. — I shouldn’t say the U.S., because I’m hoping that there will be a change in the U.S. and it will actually — a new Democratic majority and the new president will do something about it. It gives them — it has given the Bush administration the camouflage to impose its own client regime in Somalia, which will do its bidding. And the same for Ethiopia. Neither one of them actually cares for stability and security in Somalia. If they did, they would have engaged with the Islamic Courts Union. The Islamic Courts Union made repeated efforts to say to the West, “We want to negotiate.” Yes, they had a few [inaudible] there. They had some people who might even have been terrorists, but this was vastly exaggerated so that the U.S. could pursue its goals.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the Islamic Courts Union?

SALIM LONE: You know, it’s very interesting. Despite the name, they were actually started by Somali businessmen. Somalia has great entrepreneurs. And even in the 15 years of violence, they have the best cellphone system. They’ve done amazing things in the chaos, Somali businessmen. But they wanted a more secure environment for themselves. So, knowing that the Somali people are very Muslim — Somalis are amongst the world’s most abiding Muslims, but they are not at all extremists. They’re very moderate Muslims.

You know, in Canada a few years ago, there was an attempt by Muslims to have Sharia imposed in some limited civil cases, and you know who organized that? It wasn’t Saudis, it wasn’t Pakistanis. It was actually Somalis in Canada, because they believe in Sharia law. So these businessmen decided that if they could use Sharia law as a uniting factor in Somalia, there would be peace there, and they could do better. So 11 courts were established. Nine of them were led by very moderate Somalis. Two of them were led by radicals. So that is what the Islamic Courts Union was. And they quickly provided security, and they quickly began to provide services. And that is why they became so popular. And that is why the U.S. and Ethiopia decided to go and overthrow them.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. Special Operations forces launched two attacks, a pair of airstrikes on Somalia in January. Explain what happened there.

SALIM LONE: Well, again, the reason given was that they were attacking terrorists on the run. You know, in Kenya we had this terrible demolition, really, of the U.S. Embassy there by terrorists in 1998. Over 210 people died, most of them Kenyans. So those terrorists —

AMY GOODMAN: The twin embassy attacks in Tanzania and in Kenya.

SALIM LONE: And Kenya, right. But, you know, the Tanzanian one was a small attack. Only about seven people died. But more than 200 died in the devastating attack in Kenya, and thousands very badly maimed and injured. That attack was plotted, planned, in Somalia, lawless Somalia. Somalia has been lawless for 15 years. But there were no Somalis involved in that attack. People forget that. People just think of Somalia, that’s where it was planned, but there were no Somalis involved in the attack.

Now, because of that fear of those terrorists, which is a legitimate fear — and we expect the United States to act against terrorists, in a lawful way, though, not the way they’re doing — they had not carried out any attacks for the last 15 years in Somalia, or even since 1998. If it is a terrorist they were going to, was it the first time they were able to identify the terrorists there? No. They were going after the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union. We must not forget that. As it turns out, we know now that there was no terrorist leader killed in that attack. It was the Islamic Courts Unions killed.

But, you know, that was not the only lawless act by the United States. The United States, actually, from the very beginning, has worked very closely with Ethiopia, with its special forces, in organizing the invasion. John Abizaid, the chief of CENTCOM, was there in Ethiopia in December. The U.S. Rangers are very active in Kenya, carrying out, by the way, development projects, which is scary, because this is how you make humanitarian organizations targets, because you identify them with military activities.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Salim Lone, former spokesman for the U.N. mission in Iraq, yes, when it also was blown up with the head of the mission, among others, Sergio de Mello, dying in that attack. He is now retired. He is a columnist in Kenya for the Daily Nation. I wanted to go to Sudan for a moment. The African Union has called on Sudan to speed up plans for a new AU, African Union, U.N. peace force in Darfur, where five Senegalese soldiers were killed Sunday. They were part of the AU force. Explain what’s happening there?

SALIM LONE: Yeah. Sudan is an enormously complex situation. In fact, outside of Somalia, Sudan is the most unstable state in the region. People don’t know that. It has, after many — a decade and a half of the most vicious civil war between north and south, that people know about, come to a peace agreement there. But that also is in the process of unraveling. And it’s not being talked about anywhere. The Darfur crisis is, of course, what gets all the attention, and rightly so. I mean, it’s a terrible situation, and the world must put maximum pressure on the regime of Bashir to do something about it to stop the killing.

AMY GOODMAN: How come it hasn’t worked?

SALIM LONE: It hasn’t worked for a number of reasons. First of all, right from the start, around 2005, when this crisis blew up — you know, the crisis is an old one. It began, actually, in Chad. You know, we talk of neighboring countries, separate countries, but they’re all the same people. Darfurians and Chadians, on the border, they’re all the same, they’re all Darfurians. So Janjaweed is about 20 years old, but we only heard about it now. Big struggle for resources between the pastoralists, the sedentarists, so this struggle is age-old. But it became very intense in 2004.

And immediately, in 2005, there were calls for the use of force against Sudan. The Economist, I remember, wrote a big editorial telling Tony Blair, “You must intervene.” And it asked a question in a headline: Would it be lawful to intervene in Sudan? And the answer we would get right away was: We don’t care if it’s lawful, it must be done. You know, recently, Susan Smith and Tony Lake proposed that Darfur be bombed, the Sudan be bombed. So what you have now, therefore, is a regime which is convinced that the real aim of the West is regime change, as in Sudan, as now we will see in Somalia.

The only way to address the crisis is in working politically with the Sudanese regime, despite the terrible things it’s doing, and it must feel assured that the only aim of the international community, including the United Nations — you know, there is deep suspicion in the Muslim world about the United Nations, because we saw in Iraq that all the information that the U.N. gathered was actually used by the United States in the war. So the U.N. now is commonly seen as a front for the United States. So we must assure that regime that our aim is only to bring about peace in Darfur, not regime change. And yet, there are calls all the time for attacking Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, your last piece in the Daily Nation of Kenya is called “The Last Thing We Need.” And you’re talking about U.S. AFRICOM. Explain what it is.

SALIM LONE: You know, it is actually the last thing that Africa needs. This is a U.S. military command on its own for Africa. And this is not what Africa needs. This is the most impoverished continent in the world. It’s been asking for decades for engagement, long-term engagement, commitment from the West, for mutually beneficial economic progress. And suddenly, President Bush announces in February, “We are going to have a U.S. command.” And you know how he projected it? He said, “This command is going to help Africa develop.” It is bizarre. I mean, what this command is going to do, it’s going to militarize Africa. It is going to inflame conflict. There is so much anger against the United States, especially if it’s in the Horn of Africa region, which is primarily Muslim. If it is there, there will be new anger.

You know, establishing bases seems to have become like a routine thing to do now. People used to be horrified by the notion of independent nations being made to accept bases. Bases are just — they’re terrible things for countries. And yet, this is the way the president is proceeding. And he’s saying that he’s doing it to crush terrorism, which would be fine, but here again you see the conviction, the reflexive resort to the use of force to grapple with deeply political issues. There’s a conviction in the Bush administration that if you can pour in enough troops somewhere, if you can kill enough suspected terrorists, you will deal with deeply political problems, that you will solve them. This is not the case. It’s not.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think what the U.S. is doing has anything to do with China’s expanding presence in Africa?

SALIM LONE: Without any question. I mean, I’m glad you raised the issue of China, because China, as I said earlier, is interested in the same oil and other resources that Africa offers. But how differently it is pursuing it. It is going there and making bilateral agreements, giving aid, etc. And, in fact, India is also quite interested in Africa. It’s not so much talked about.

But this is actually a very wonderful development potentially. The rise of China, within Africa, and India, as antagonists, so to speak, to the U.S., could create a bipolarity. I mean, one of the great problems you have in the world today is that it’s a unipolar world. There’s only one superpower. And the gross crimes the U.S. has committed, most of them in recent history, have come since the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the U.S. is free to do as it wishes. So if we can, in our region, have China and India as a competing powers, there is some hope that it will help push the U.S. towards moderation.

But one of the great problems here is that so little is known about Somalia and the region. We have a situation where Barack Obama is on the same page with George Bush on the question of Somalia. He is a co-sponsor of an amendment at the moment on Somalia, which is, you know, designed to root out tourism, etc., etc. We need to reach out to —

AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama, whose father comes from Kenya.

SALIM LONE: From Kenya. Even though his father comes from Kenya, he does not know enough about what the U.S. is actually doing, because he co-signed — he’s one of the co-sponsors. So we need to reach out to people like Barack Obama and the many of the senators and congresspeople who care. But they don’t know. And I’m so glad that you do as much as you do on Somalia and that region, because we need to inform them, so that they can take action and change policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, you survived the attack on the U.N. compound, when many of your colleagues did not. What happened that day? Why were you not in the building?

SALIM LONE: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Two things. First, I will say that that very morning I had organized a meeting of all the communication officers to discuss the falling image of the U.N. in Iraq. And we were really worried that very morning that we could be attacked. But in terms of the specific question, I was going to be part of that meeting in the afternoon at 4:00, where Arthur Helton and a colleague, very interested in the civilian toll the Iraq War was taking, even at that time, had come to see Sergio. And Sergio asked me just before the meeting to please go and write a statement about the killing outside Abu Ghraib prison of Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman. And, you know, that saved my life, but didn’t save any of the others, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Salim Lone. I wish we had more time to talk. But for now, Salim Lone, former spokesman for the U.N. mission in Iraq, now a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya, in New York for this few days. Thanks so much for joining us.

SALIM LONE: Thank you very much, Amy.

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