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AU Denies Somali Militant Group's Abuse Claims

The African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as AMISOM, has expressed outrage over accusations by the Somali militant group al-Shabab that AMISOM healthcare workers have been mistreating Somalis seeking medical help. The Islamist group appears to be intensifying efforts to force the peacekeeping unit to withdraw alongside departing Ethiopian troops.

Speaking to reporters in the Somali capital Mogadishu, AMISOM spokesman Major Barigye Ba-Hoku of the Ugandan army categorically denied al-Shabab allegations that the medical staff at the AMISOM health facility in Mogadishu has been using expired drugs to treat Somalis and have violated what the Shabab calls the dignity of Somali women.

"These statements are baseless, unfounded, and lack any hint of truth whatsoever," he said. "AMISOM personnel practice and they exhibit the highest levels of medical ethics. AMISOM personnel benefit from and share the same facilities and services with the Somalis. Our medical facilities and services are open, free, and accessible to all, including al-Shabab."

The allegations against AMISOM were made earlier this week in a radio broadcast by the Mogadishu-based spiritual leader of the Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr.

The notoriously press-shy 31-year-old militant from the breakaway republic of Somaliland is believed to have been a key leader of the radical Youth Mujahideen Movement, which emerged in Somalia in early 2007 as part of a violent Islamist-led insurgency against the country's newly-installed Ethiopia-backed interim government. The movement was subsequently absorbed into the Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked military wing of the ousted Islamic Courts Union.

The Shabab bitterly opposes the peacekeeping mission and has carried out several deadly attacks against AMISOM troops.

On Tuesday, one Ugandan peacekeeper was killed and another wounded in Mogadishu in a roadside bombing blamed on the Shabab.

The first contingent of 1,500 troops from Uganda arrived in Mogadishu in March, 2007 to help stabilize the country after the Ethiopia-led military intervention. About 3,000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi are in Somalia. But escalating violence has kept other African countries from committing troops and the mission is far short of the 8,000 it is mandated to have.

Somalis say Abu Zubayr's allegations appear to be an attempt to stir up public anger against AMISOM to counter African Union efforts to send more peacekeeping troops to Somalia. The African Union says more troops are needed to avoid a security vacuum expected in the wake of the planned withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in the coming weeks.

After two years of violence that has taken an appalling toll on Somali civilians, Shabab fighters have regained territory in many parts of south and central Somalia and are expected to make a push for the capital. But the Islamist movement in Somalia is badly divided and the expected departure of Ethiopian troops has reportedly ignited a sectarian struggle in some parts of the country between the Shabab and less fundamentalist Islamist groups.

Authorities in the central Galgadud region have appealed for humanitarian help for at least 80,000 people displaced by nearly two weeks of fighting between the Shabab and a newly-militarized group called the Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama. Civil society leaders in the regional capital Dusamareb say 42,000 people there have been displaced. Most of those, they say, are people who had previously fled the violence in Mogadishu.