As an international meeting on Somalia gets under way in Rome, U.N. agencies say that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed on a daily basis in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. For the past month, Islamist insurgents have been battling pro-government forces in the heaviest fighting the capital has seen in years.
According to the U.N. children's and refugee agencies, all sides in the fighting have flaunted humanitarian principles by ignoring the safety of civilians. Fighters have shelled civilian areas, forcibly recruited children to join militias, and raped women.
The U.N. refugee agency says 117,000 civilians have been displaced since early May, when the latest round of clashes began.
UNICEF's acting representative for Somalia, Hannan Suleiman, says this is the most concentrated displacement of civilians the city has seen in years.
"It is certainly the highest we have seen in Somalia for many, many years,"Suleiman said. "We have not seen this number of people in such a short period of time being displaced."
The latest fighting pits Islamist insurgents from the al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam militias against government soldiers and pro-government militias. Insurgents have also targeted the roughly 4,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi who are deployed in Mogadishu. More than 200 people have been killed in the past month, according to most estimates.
Suleiman says women and children have been particularly affected by the conflict. She says there are reports that boys as young as nine-years old have been recruited to join militias.
"And they are being used on the front line,"Suleiman said. "This is in direct contravention of the child-rights convention, and with the laws governing combat, which state that the use of children under 15 years old in combat is a war crime with legal consequences. And we do have reports that children under 15 are being recruited by all sides in the conflict."
UNICEF says at least 34 schools in the city have been occupied by fighters at some point since the start of the year, and many families have been separated. There are reports of rape and other sexual violence against women who have been displaced.
The insurgents are seeking to overthrow the fragile internationally-backed government led by President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. President Ahmed is a moderate Islamist and a former insurgent leader, but his opponents say he is not committed to Islam and is too close to the United States and Ethiopia.
The government, as well as international diplomats, have accused Eritrea of backing the insurgents.
An international meeting to discuss the conflict is underway in Rome. The two-day meeting features representatives from more than 35 countries and international organizations. The meeting will discuss the security situation, as well as the problem of piracy off the coast.