Ethiopia has denied allegations its soldiers in Somalia attacked and killed innocent civilians during heavy fighting against insurgents in the Somali capital earlier this month, calling the charges false and unfair. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Allegations that Ethiopian soldiers in Mogadishu committed war crimes surfaced last week in an e-mail message to Eric van der Linden, the chief of the European Commission's delegation to Kenya.
The e-mail, written by a security advisor to the commission, said that there were strong reasons to believe that Ethiopian troops, along with soldiers of Somalia's interim government, intentionally attacked civilian areas during an Ethiopian-led military operation to root out suspected insurgents in the Somali capital.
The assault from March 29 to April 1 triggered some of the worst violence in Mogadishu in more than 15 years, leaving more than 1,000 people dead. In some insurgent strongholds, Ethiopian rockets, tanks, and artillery reportedly demolished entire neighborhoods.
In the e-mail, the security advisor also suggested that more than 1,000 Ugandan peacekeepers, who arrived in Mogadishu last month as the vanguard of an African Union peacekeeping force, were complicit in the war crimes because they did nothing to stop or prevent the deaths of civilians.
The governments of Ethiopia and Somalia say the insurgency, which began soon after Ethiopian and Somali troops drove the Islamic Courts Union out of power in Mogadishu last December, is being fueled mainly by extremists inside the courts and their supporters.
Ethiopia Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Solomon Abebe says while civilian deaths during the military offensive were regrettable, Ethiopian and Somali government troops did nothing wrong.
"In fact, the [war] crimes were committed by extremists, who are defying resolutions of the Security Council and the wishes of the international community," she said. "These extremists have been killing innocent people of Mogadishu daily. They were attacking, using mortars and missiles. They were killing and shelling civilians, starting from the beginning."
The European Commission's delegation to Kenya says a team has been appointed to look into the war crime allegations against the Ethiopian and Somali forces.
It is treating the matter seriously because the European Union, along with the United States, provides critical financial and technical assistance to Somalia's struggling transitional government and the African Union peacekeeping mission.
The European Commission has no authority to prosecute war crimes, but it can refer findings to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
On Saturday, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said that she believed all sides in the conflict used excessive force, but blamed insurgents for starting the fighting by firing mortars from populated areas.
Meanwhile, a fragile, week-old ceasefire between the Ethiopian military and Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan was shattered early Wednesday. Witnesses say Ethiopian troops and insurgents engaged in heavy fighting around the city's main stadium.
The United Nations estimates about 124,000 people, or about a tenth of Mogadishu's population, have fled since early February because of the relentless violence.