A just-released Human Rights Watch report accuses all parties to the conflict in Somalia of regularly committing war crimes that contribute to the Horn of Africa nation's humanitarian catastrophe. But Ethiopia is taking strong exception to charges made against Ethiopian troops, and questioning the methods used in compiling the report.
The report, issued Monday, charges Somalia's transitional government, the Ethiopian forces supporting it, and the country's various insurgent forces of widespread violations of the laws of war.
A summary posted on the internet quotes the group's Africa director Georgette Gagnon as saying, 'the combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians than on each other'.
Ethiopia reacted immediately and strongly, calling the report 'deeply flawed'. In a phone interview, spokesman Wahde Belay charged Human Rights Watch's reliance on hearsay and second-hand evidence had led them to accuse Ethiopian forces of crimes committed by other groups.
"Almost all crimes in this report are committed by al-Shabab. I can talk with pride that our military is one of the most disciplined in the continent. Saying this, if there are credible allegations about any abuses by our forces in Somalia, we are ready to look into the details. But this report by Human Rights Watch is a politically-motivated one," he said.
The report's chief author, researcher Chris Albin-Lackey defended his conclusions. In a phone interview from Nairobi, Lackey said Ethiopian officials appear to be confused about how the rights group gets its information, and said some abuses attributed to Ethiopian troops appear to have been a matter of policy.
"I don't think it's possible to have an army so well-trained that it will not commit serious abuses if the soldiers on the ground are allowed to do so with complete impunity. And that's what happened with regard to Ethiopian troops in Somalia. And the systemic indiscriminate bombardment of whole neighborhoods of Mogadishu by Ethiopian military forces is organized. It appears to be a military policy," said Albin-Lackey.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission withdrew in failure in 1995. Ethiopian troops intervened in December, 2006 to drive out Islamist forces that had taken control of Mogadishu, and installed a U.N. backed government.
But the two-year Ethiopian military presence, along with an African Union peacekeeping force, has witnessed a dramatic increase in violence. Foreign ministry spokesman Wahde Monday reiterated that Ethiopia's decision to withdraw its remaining 2,000 soldiers from Somalia by the first week in January is irrevocable.
The African Union is hastily trying to bolster its 3,400-strong peacekeeping force to fill the security vacuum left by the Ethiopian withdrawal. But AU officials acknowledge it may be necessary to pull the peacekeepers out, too unless they can be reinforced to withstand an expected push by the Islamist extremists to reimpose their rule when the Ethiopians leave.