, NAIROBI, Feb 21 – Somalia\’s government and African Union troops face a difficult balancing act as they prepare for an unprecedented offensive: eradicating Al Shabaab insurgents while sparing the civilians in their midst.
Many observers agree that, should the AU-government tandem succeed in wresting Somalia back from the rebels in the operation thought to be imminent, its ability to show more concern for civilians will be key to its credibility.
The fighting in Mogadishu follows a well-known script repeated almost daily.
Al Shabaab fighters, whose leadership recently proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda, shell positions held by government troops or AU forces (AMISOM) from their bastions in densely-populated areas.
Retaliatory fire soon flies back across the city and smashes into the estimated location from which the attack originated, with fluctuating accuracy and devastating consequences for local residents.
Hundreds of Somali civilians are believed to have died, many of them in Mogadishu\’s daily mortar ping-pong, over the past three years of almost uninterrupted civil conflict.
Awareness of the plight of civilians in Somalia, routinely described as one of the world\’s worst humanitarian emergencies, and of shortcomings in efforts to protect them appears to be growing however.
"Civilians are the main victims of what is happening now in Somalia, indiscriminate shelling has a disproportionate impact on civilians," UN humnitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden said earlier this week.
"There is a general concern on the way this war is being fought," he said.
Earlier this month, Doctors Without Borders said the Mogadishu hospital it helps run had received alarming numbers of women and children wounded in shelling.
"The numbers of injured women and children that we received in just over 72 hours is not \’collateral damage,\’ it’s a total lack of regard for the safety of civilians," the statement said.
In January, the UN Security Council voiced concern that "the urban nature of the conflict and the frequent failure of all parties to restrict the fighting to clearly identified military targets (places) civilians at great risk."
When he was elected a year ago, President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed enjoyed wide popularity and was seen as Somalia\’s best chance for peace in years.
But he has since failed to assert his authority on the country and retain his credit. Moreover, shelling by the TFG and its AMISOM backers has earned him much criticism at home.
"AMISOM and the Somali government… are failing their responsibility to protect the lives of civilians," a Mogadishu-based Somali human rights activist told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In one of the most dangerous cities of the world, there are few independent watchdogs and many threats to journalists, making it difficult to untangle facts from propaganda and clearly establish responsibilities.
"The Al Shabaab\’s contempt for civilians is evident," stressed a western source in Mogadishu.
"They have no qualms about shelling from the vicinity of hospitals, firing mortar rounds from mounted vehicles with the aim of attracting a deadly response," the source said.
AMISOM insists it is doing its utmost to spare civilians.
"Our soldiers exercise maximum restraint to fire back even when they are in imminent danger," said a high-ranking officer in the force.
"Our primary mission and concern is to protect and assist the people, not to compound their already serious security situation".
"AMISOM troops have never fired the first bullet…. But surely we reserve the right to self defense," he added, promising investigations and even punishments "in case of mistakes or accidents".
Aware of the high price paid by civilians and the PR implications of such incidents, AMISOM appears to be altering its communications strategy.
"From now on, if we accidentally kill civilians, we will say so," said one AU official.
This could entail another problem: the issue of compensation to the victims\’ families at a time when the AU is already struggling to pay its own soldiers.