International humanitarian agencies and local aid workers in Somalia say they fear that camps for internally displaced people in the southern outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu, may be the target of a military operation by Ethiopian and Somali troops. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
VOA has not been able to independently confirm the reports of a possible military action against IDP camps in the Afgoye District, 30 kilometers south of the capital, Mogadishu.
But remarks made by interim government leaders in the past week strongly suggest that, at the very least, the camps are under intense government scrutiny.
On Monday, Mogadishu's Mayor Mohamed Dheere said that internally displaced people in the Afgoye area were terrorists with links to the al-Qaida terror network. Two days later, Somalia's interior minister, Mohamed Mohamud Guled, said that 4,500 newly trained government soldiers were ready to be deployed to wipe out terrorists and pacify Mogadishu within three weeks.
The IDP camps in Afgoye are home to tens of thousands of people, mainly from the Hebr Gedir sub-clan of Mogadishu's largest tribe called the Hawiye.
Many fled to Afgoye to escape the daily violence that has torn apart the capital since an Ethiopia-led offensive ousted Somali Islamists from power nearly eight months ago. But other Hebr Gedir sub-clan members say they were forced to leave Mogadishu by Ethiopian and Somali officials, who blame the sub-clan for breeding insurgents and supporting the insurgency.
The unconfirmed reports say the goal of the operation is to root out radical Islamists and opponents of Somalia's western-backed Transitional Federal Government. Government officials say some insurgents are using the camps as base for their operations.
The director of operations for a non-governmental organization called SAACID-Australia, Tony Burns, says that the reports have greatly alarmed his organization and other humanitarian groups working in Somalia.
"These IDPs are in desperate need," he said. "Literally, tens of thousands in the Afgoye District in Lower Shabelle [region] alone are starving. We have heard rumors that elements within the TFG and Ethiopian elements are mobilizing to further displace these people through military action. If that is true, we find [if] completely unacceptable."
In his remarks Monday, Mogadishu's mayor also criticized aid agencies for providing food to internally displaced people in Afgoye, accusing the agencies of feeding terrorists.
Burns says SAACID-Australia's sister organization, SAACID-Somalia, recently delivered more than 600 metric tons of food to the camps in the area, where the malnutrition rate for children is at a critical level.
He says he is appalled by the mayor's accusation.
"SAACID-Australia finds Mohamed Dheere's statement completely baseless," Burns said. "We deplore his statement. SAAID will continue to support all IDPs that it can reach."
On Thursday, some 1,500 internally displaced people in the Elasha-Biyaha settlement in Afgoye staged a demonstration, condemning Dheere's claim that they were al-Qaida-linked terrorists.