, GENEVA, Jul 10 – The UN human rights chief said Friday that war crimes may have been committed in Somalia, where fierce fighting between hard-line Islamist rebels and government troops has forced more than 200,000 people to flee in two months.
Citing witness accounts that fighters from both sides had used torture and also fired mortars into areas populated or used by civilians, Navi Pillay said: "Some of these acts might amount to war crimes."
"In this new wave of attacks, it is clear that civilians — especially women and children — are bearing the brunt of the violence," Pillay, who is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
On May 7, the Shebab, a hard-line Islamist armed group, and Hezb al-Islam, a more political group, launched an unprecedented nationwide offensive against the internationally backed administration of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
The violence has forced more than 200,000 people to flee in the past two months, while hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed and wounded, according to Pillay’s office.
Quoting witnesses, the UN said that the militant groups have carried out extra-judicial executions, planted mines and bombs in civilian areas and even used civilians as human shields.
There is also evidence that various forces are recruiting child soldiers, many aged between 14 and 18, in what is described as a "serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law."
"There needs to be a much greater effort to protect civilians.
Displaced people and human rights defenders, aid workers and journalists are among those most exposed, and in some cases are being directly targeted," added the UN.
Pillay said evidence of violations must be collected so that those responsible for the crimes can be brought to justice once order has been restored.
Amid the current unrest, however, official judicial institutions in the capital Mogadishu and the southern and central regions of Somalia have "ceased to function."
"UN human rights staff have received credible reports that in areas controlled by insurgent groups, ad hoc tribunals are judging and sentencing civilians without due process and in violation of Somali as well as international law," said the UN.
Punishments handed down by such tribunals include death sentences by stoning or decapitation. Cemeteries and places of religious significance are also said to have been destroyed by Shebab militants, it added.
The UN Security Council on Thursday said it would consider taking measures against countries, including Eritrea, that provide aid to armed militant groups in Somalia.
The United States, which is giving Somalia’s embattled government supplies of weapons and ammunition to fight off the insurgents, had earlier fingered Eritrea for backing the militants.
"We think they (the Eritreans) are providing material support, including financing to some of these extremist groups, most particularly Al Shabaab," Ian Kelly, State Department spokesman said late June.
"We’ve taken these concerns up with the government of Eritrea," he added then.
Both the African Union and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development have also called for sanctions against Eritrea, which has denied aiding the extremists and slammed the United States for providing weapons to the Somali government.