MOGADISHU, Somalia – The only ambulance service in war-torn Mogadishu said Wednesday that more than 4,200 bystanders have died in warfare the last two years, and a U.S. group that works to prevent civilian deaths said Somalia is more dangerous for civilians than Afghanistan or Iraq.
The seaside capital sees frequent barrages of mortars, rockets and artillery shells fired between Islamist insurgents like al-Shabab and pro-government forces who protect the sliver of land controlled by the U.N.- and U.S.-backed Somali government.
The head of the city's ambulance service, Ali Muse, said that pro-government forces from the African Union and Somali troops are to blame for the majority of the civilian deaths — about 80 percent.
"All of those victims are civilians killed either by stray bullets or hit by mortars or by artillery shells," said Muse, who is the head of the Lifeline Africa Ambulance Service. "About 80 percent of them died at Bakara market, which is the main target of the African Union peacekeepers."
Maj. Barigye Bahoku, the spokesman for the 7,000-strong African Union force in Mogadishu, said he could not comment on the ambulance service report because he had not read it.
Human rights groups and Mogadishu residents have repeatedly accused the African Union of indiscriminately targeting populated areas of the city with artillery fire after insurgents fire mortars toward AU troops. Bakara is the most popular market.
The executive director of CIVIC, the U.S.-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, said civilians bear the brunt of war in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But she said Somalia may be the most dangerous because neither side abides by obligations under international law to avoid civilian casualties, as U.S. and international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are required to.
"Al-Shabab hides out in civilian markets, blasts the government or AMISOM (African Union) bases and then runs, so by the time AMISOM fires back, they're already gone," Sarah Holewinski said. "When AMISOM does fire back, they do so indiscriminately and often kill civilians. This despite rhetoric from AMISOM that they abide by international laws and never want to kill civilians."
Holewinski said insurgents in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan all put civilians in harm's way.
The African Union, in a rare admission of civilian casualties, apologized for the deaths of two Somalis after a convoy of AU troops opened fire on civilians Tuesday. Seven people were wounded.
The mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Nur, asked the AU for compensation for the shooting.
"We do not know exactly why disciplined forces like AMISOM are committing this gross violation on the lives of innocent civilians. It is deliberate attack against innocents," Nur said.
The AU commander, Gen. Nathan Mugisha, apologized for the shooting and said the soldiers involved were arrested. Mugisha called the incident sad and regrettable but also isolated. He said the African Union force, which is primarily comprised of troops from Uganda and Burundi, is in Mogadishu to protect civilians and make the capital safer.
"We came here to help the Somali people to restore the peace and stability, but we did not come here to kill or wound any Somali," Mugisha said.
Holewinski said AMISOM appears to be taking seriously the threat to civilians but has not yet made the necessary practical changes to their operations.
Muse's ambulance service said 2,171 civilians were killed between January and the end of October this year, and that 5,814 were wounded. Among the wounded were 2,903 women and 1,146 children. The group said that 2,089 civilians were killed in the capital in 2009.
Civilian deaths in war zones are difficult to track and often end up being estimates, though Muse's count is based on the number of bodies his ambulance drivers have seen.
The 4,260 civilian deaths over the last 22 months means that Somalia sees a high ratio of civilian deaths compared with the 7,000 African Union troops in Mogadishu.
The Iraq Body Count, a private British-based group that has tracked civilian deaths in Iraq since March 2003, estimates that 107,000 civilians have been killed in that war. The United States had about 140,000 troops in Iraq through much of the height of the war.
The Afghanistan Rights Monitor reported 1,074 civilian deaths during the first half of 2010. The group called this year the worst for security since shortly after the demise of the Taliban regime. There are currently about 130,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority of which are American.
Holewinski said that civilian deaths "far outweigh" combatant deaths in all three wars.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation into chaos.
Hassan Elmi Yahye, a prominent clan elder Mogadishu, said he counted 84 artillery shells fired toward Bakara market on Monday night. He said whenever insurgents carry out attack against AMISOM positions or fire mortars toward them, AMISOM troops start firing toward Bakara market, irrespective of the source of the fire.
"Anyone who is killed by an artillery shell is killed by AMISOM," he said. "But anyone killed by small bullets and mortars are mainly killed by insurgents. That is the reality on the ground."
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso and Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.