UNITED Nations troops lately have been under a different kind of fire by Somali citizens - allegations of human rights abuses.
And now a report issued on July 30 by the London-based group African Rights highlights a number of incidents in Somalia that raise the question of how much force is acceptable by UN troops in Somalia and elsewhere, and under what circumstances - especially against opponents who resort to a wide range of unscrupulous tactics.
"One would hope the UN aspires to higher standards than a Somali warlord," Alex de Waal, one of the authors of the report, said over the weekend.
Over the past few months, Western relief officials and Somalis of various factions have raised some of the same questions about UN troops.
Complaints include alleged overuse of force in bombings and shootings, a disregard for the safety of Somali civilians when carrying out weapons searches, and, among certain troops, an arrogance toward the local population.
But allegations of misconduct are not limited to UN troops. The UN's principal opponent in Somalia, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, and his forces are accused in the report of "many gross violations of human rights." The abuses by General Aideed cited by the report include: "indiscriminate attacks on non-military targets, violating the neutral status of hospitals, and endangering civilians by using civilian locations and crowds of civilians ... to launch military attacks."
African Rights was formed last December by two principal investigators for the human rights group Africa Watch after one of them was dismissed and the other, Mr. de Waal, resigned over their criticism of US and UN intervention in Somalia.
In a Monitor interview on July 30, retired US Adm. Jonathan Howe, who heads the UN operations in Somalia, dismissed most of the charges in the African Rights report as "exaggerations." He called the report "very biased and very unfair," but said the UN would "take a look" at any charges that seem credible.
"Our people are not perfect, and they do make mistakes," Admiral Howe said. But overall, he added, "I think they [UN troops] have been really restrained in the way they carry out their duties."
For example, Howe defended a June 17 attack by UN troops on Digfer hospital in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Aideed's forces were being pursued by UN troops the day the militia entered the hospital, he said, and they began firing at UN soldiers.
"If they start shooting ... you have to regard that as no longer a hospital," he said.
But African Rights says the attack on the hospital merits an international investigation, especially because the UN troops did not make a pre-attack warning to allow civilians to leave.
African Rights is also calling for an investigation of the July 12 aerial bombing by US and UN forces of a house in Mogadishu, said by the UN to be an Aideed "command center." According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 54 people died in the attack. African Rights says the victims included some religious leaders, clan elders, and civilian bystanders.
But Howe says the bombing was necessary to "disrupt" a ring of Aideed leaders who had masterminded the killings of Pakistani UN troops and six Somali civilian employees of the UN in the past two months. Howe says 20 people were killed in the attack and 15 wounded.
HOWE also denies African Rights' charges of misconduct by Belgian troops in the southern port city of Kismayo.
African Rights alleges Belgian UN troops have killed numerous civilians without cause, which Somalis in Kismayo also have alleged. A former employee of the Belgian arm of the aid group Doctors Without Borders in Kismayo says Belgian troops were abusive and rude to Somalis.
Philip Gerard, currently with the organization, acknowledges there "had been some problems" with Belgian troops in the past in Kismayo, including troops throwing some civilians off a bridge. But, he says, such incidents were reported, and the soldiers "were charged." African Rights maintains the abuses by Belgian troops continue.
The report praises the behavior of UN troops from Botswana in the central Somali town of Bardere, near the Ethiopian border. During a seven-day visit to the region, the two authors of the report "came across not a single example of abusive behavior by the members of the Botswanan Defense Force," the report states.
And the report praises the Canadian military for being the most thorough in investigating charges of abuse by its troops in the town of Belet Uen - after initially denying misconduct.