Pressure is mounting on the Ugandan government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) to explain why after four weeks since Ugandan peacekeepers allegedly killed six civilians in Merka no investigation has been conducted leading to prosecution of the culprits.
Merka is 109km southwest of the capital, Mogadishu.
Amisom has delivered significantly on its mandate to rid Mogadishu and other strategic towns in Somalia of Al Shabaab terrorists since it started operations in 2007, but the peacekeeping force now finds itself at the centre of yet another storm of controversy.
Eyewitnesses said Ugandan peacekeepers entered Merka’s Rusiya neighbourhood after a bomb attack on an Amisom convoy on July 31.
The soldiers found the Moalim Iidey family celebrating a wedding, separated the men from the women and shot six men dead — four brothers, their father and uncle.
The Amisom forces deployed around Merka in the Lower Shabelle region are Ugandan troops.
In a recent statement, Human Rights Watch called for action on the Ugandan forces for the incident, and demanded that Kampala launch an impartial investigation into the crime — over which Amisom has remained quiet.
“The investigation should be carried out with maximum protection for witnesses, and the Ugandan government should fairly prosecute any of its soldiers responsible for these criminal offences,” a HRW statement said.
The accounts say that four died immediately, while one brother hid under a bed after being shot but later died. Their father died during the night after the soldiers allegedly refused to allow the family to take him to hospital.
“The African Union forces in Somalia face difficult challenges, but that makes respecting the laws of war even more crucial,” said Maria Burnett, a senior researcher at HRW.
“Gunning down people at a wedding or anyone else in cold blood as punishment for insurgent attacks will only make things harder for the AU forces in the future.”
Observers argue that under international law applicable to the armed conflict in Somalia, parties to the conflict, including troop-contributing countries to the peacekeeping operation, have an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes by forces under their jurisdiction and take appropriate action.
The Amisom troop-contributing countries are Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.
By press time, The East-African had not reached the Uganda People’s Defence Forces spokesman Lt Col Paddy Ankunda for comment on what Kampala has done about the recent blot on the record of its troops in Somalia.
Last year, UPDF court-martialled some of its soldiers deployed in Somalia who raped Somali women and engaged in other offences that breach the international operational guidelines for peacekeeping forces.
On its part, Amisom is yet to accept responsibility for the killing of civilians by its forces, or even investigate the incident; the peacekeeping force only issued a vague statement days later that the Amisom leadership noted and respected the number of calls for investigations into the incident.
“Considering our commitment to upholding our human rights obligations in the conduct of our operations, in response to the rash of allegations coming out of Merka, and in line with laid down administrative procedures, the officer in charge of the troop detachment in Merka has been recalled for questioning as a prelude to a possible further investigation,” read the Amisom statement, issued on August 4.
Three weeks later, The EastAfrican asked Amisom spokesman Lt Col Paul Njuguna what came out of the questioning and whether there would be sanctions against the soldiers.
“Kindly note that the leadership of Amisom will be making a public statement on the Merka incident in the following days, and that the questions raised will be addressed. We request you bear with us because given the multitude of similar enquiries, we are not able to respond to each individual inquiry,” he replied.
According to HRW, witnesses are afraid to come forward because they fear reprisals from both Al Shabaab and Amisom.