Pressure is growing on the United Nations Security Council this week to bolster a beleaguered African peacekeeping force in Somalia, as fresh evidence of human rights abuses and an impending humanitarian catastrophe emerge.
The Horn of Africa nation has been a focus of violence and humanitarian crises since the ouster of its military dictator in 1991. But Somalia has reached a breaking point, say analysts and aid organizations, and international action is now crucial.
Without rapid moves toward political stability, the country's fragile, UN-backed Transitional Federal Government risks fragmenting along clan lines, says an official within the government.
Two battalions of Ugandan soldiers, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), have failed to make an impact in the capital Mogadishu, where Islamic insurgents and clan-based militia have clashed repeatedly with Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies. The fighting amplified sharply on Monday and Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of some 30 civilians.
"The Ugandan troops have had almost no impact, and it is time for the UN and the international community to use its influence to get a genuine peace and reconciliation process moving," says Mohamed Guyo of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.
The UN Security Council began discussions Monday on the future of the undermanned AU mission with the intention of drafting a fresh resolution on Somalia. UN officials say the international organization is committed to replacing the 1,600-strong AU force once a negotiated peace is in place – an eventuality that observers say looks increasingly unlikely in the near future.
Other African countries have failed to send the forces they promised – obligations that, if met, would bring the total to 8,000 troops.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced out of the capital since militias loyal to a network of Islamic Courts relinquished their hold on Mogadishu at the end of last year.
But so far attempts at reconciling the country's fragile government with opposition elements have made little progress. A clan-based conference organized last month in Mogadishu by Somalia's tenuous transitional government has been criticized for failing to represent dissident Islamists.
An adviser to the Transitional Federal Government says the Mogadishu conference is a means of showing international donors that attempts at peace are being made, though actual progress is constrained by clan conflict.
"In international terms, the conference has some miles to go," says the anonymous official. "As usual in Somalia, things are being divided up along clan lines."
Human Rights Watch: Crimes on all sides
The Union of Islamic Courts took control of much of central and southern Somalia last year, sending shock waves through the Horn of Africa and governments further afield.
Although they brought a degree of stability to a country bereft of central government for 15 years, their hard-line sharia law raised fears that Somalia would become a haven for Islamic terrorists. They were forced out after six months by Ethiopian warplanes and artillery – with tacit US backing – sent to prop up the feeble interim government.
The result is largely business as usual for Somalia's war-weary population. The capital has been the scene of repeated fighting as insurgents try to topple the Transitional Federal Government. During the most intense clashes between February and May, more than 400,000 civilians fled Mogadishu.
A report published earlier this week by Human Rights Watch casts fresh light on that fighting and underlines the need for a progress towards peace.
The study concluded that ferocious battles in the capital constituted war crimes by all sides. The New York-based group said Ethiopia's army had indiscriminately bombarded highly populated areas, targeted and looted hospitals, and summarily executed civilians.
The group blamed the transitional Somali government for mistreating detainees and failing to warn civilians of impending military strikes, while the insurgents were guilty of using heavily populated areas as bases.
"None of the parties has taken – as international law requires – all feasible precautions to spare the civilian population from the attacks," says the analysis. The Ethiopian and Somali governments deny any abuses. Ethiopia's government said the report was propaganda for Islamist radicals and distorted Ethiopia's beneficial role in supporting the Somalian government.
"The UN Security Council's indifference to this crisis has only added to the tragedy," said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. He called on the UN to use its power to force Ethiopia and Somalia to end the abuses.
Drought may amplify Somali crisis
At the same time, the failure of this year's seasonal rains, normally from April to June, have increased to 1.5 million the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to an assessment by the Food Security Analysis Unit, an independent group backed the UN, European Commission, and the US.
"Malnutrition is going to increase in parts of southern Somalia because of the failed harvest and at the same time we have to reach the people who have been displaced from Mogadishu," says Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the UN's World Food Programme in Nairobi. "There's got to be real security on the ground for distributions to take place in Mogadishu, where we last held a distribution on June 25."