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Somalia Fighting Forces More to Flee Capital

The United Nations refugee agency says nearly 170,000 people have now been displaced from their homes in Somalia's capital since Islamist insurgents launched a renewed offensive in early May.

According to the U.N. refugee agency hospital records indicate that more than 250 people have been killed since May 7, and nearly 169,000 displaced. The UNHCR says the bulk of those fleeing their homes have headed to settlements for internally displaced people in Afgooye, south of Mogadishu, or have moved to safer areas of the capital and its outskirts. According to the agency, 33,000 people have been displaced in the last week alone.

In early May, the al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam militias launched a new offensive in Mogadishu in an effort to topple the internationally-backed transitional government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The insurgents reject the government's brand of Islamism as too moderate and want African Union peacekeepers to leave the country.

About 4,300 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers are deployed in the capital. Their presence has prevented key landmarks, including the president's residence, the port, and the airport, from falling under insurgent control, but they have had little success in stemming the overall fighting.

In a letter to the African Union ahead of a summit meeting in Libya early next month, the organization Human Rights Watch called on the AU to ensure that its peacekeepers respect human rights. While noting the extensive challenges faced by the mission, the group raised concern with reports that AU peacekeepers have fired indiscriminately at civilians, including an incident in February in which peacekeepers allegedly killed 13 civilians after their convoy came under attack.

The AU has appealed to the U.N. to take over responsibility for peacekeeping, but the Security Council has said the security situation remains too precarious.

Human Rights Watch is also urging African leaders to press the United Nations to establish a commission of experts to investigate rights abuses in the Somali conflict, saying it would be the first step towards providing accountability. The Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Georgette Gagnon, says much of the relevant information is already available through existing reports.

"There really isn't a lack of information per se about what's going on," said Gagnon. "The information is getting out. The real issue is what's being done about it which is very little, both at the Security Council in New York and to some extent by the African Union."

Meanwhile, the United States government has acknowledged sending arms to the Somali government. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the transitional government represents Somalia's best chance in 18 years to return to peace and stability.

"At the request of that government, the State Department has helped to provide weapons and ammunition on an urgent basis," said Kelly. "This is to support the Transitional Federal Government's efforts to repel the onslaught of extremist forces which are intent on destroying the Djibouti peace process and spoiling efforts to bring peace and stability to Somalia through political reconciliation."

Human Rights Watch's Georgette Gagnon says it has not yet received any information about the arms transfers. The group has been highly critical of Somalia policy under the Bush administration, including its support for Ethiopian forces who occupied the country from late 2006 to early this year, and its policy of launching air strikes against suspected terrorists. Gagnon.

"We've also been very concerned about U.S. policy in Somalia which frankly has not been good and has in our view to some extent increased the bad human rights situation there. So we've been calling on the new Obama administration to change its policy in Somalia," said Gagnon.

The United States has also said it believes that Eritrea is providing support to al-Shabab, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, suspected of links to al-Qaida.