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Islamic Militants in Somalia Vandalize Italian Cemetery

Hundreds of tombs in the Italian cemetery in Mogadishu were destroyed in night raids this week by Somali groups of Islamic militias. The Rome-based Missionary News Agency said armed men who carried out the acts of vandalism are still in control of the cemetery.

Italian civilians who lived in Somalia during the colonial era - priests and nuns who were missionaries in the East African country - were buried in the devastated cemetery. No one noticed anything until they saw young Somali children playing in the streets of Mogadishu with human bones and skulls.

After that, news spread quickly that hundreds of tombs in Mogadishu's Italian cemetery had been vandalized by groups of Islamic militias. Sources close to the Somali parliament told the Missionary News Agency based in Rome that armed men are still in control of the area. They said at least 700 graves were vandalized.

The cemetery is located on "Imperial Road", built during Italy's colonial rule. Somalia was an Italian colony from 1908 to 1941 when it was occupied by British troops.

According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Islamic fundamentalist militants headed by Shek Sharif said there was no reason "for the tombs of the unfaithful to exist under Somali soil."

The interior minister of Somalia's interim government, Hussein Aideed, told Corriere della Sera the order to destroy the graves came from real estate developers who employed Islamic militants. In a telephone call, Mr. Aideed apologized for the incident saying he hoped this would not ruin relations with Italy.

But some observers say Islamic fundamentalists do not want the interim government to take power in the war-torn capital where government buildings are in ruins. A two-year peace process led to the election last month of a new Somalia president and parliament but these are still based in Nairobi, Kenya.

A civil war has raged in Somalia since 1991. The capital is still controlled by warring factions and armed gangs and the transitional government has not yet been able to set foot in Mogadishu.