Food riots, anti-U.S. protests erupt in Somalia

The unrest follows reports of atrocities by militants and US-backed Ethiopian and Somali forces, as well as a recent US strike on an alleged Al Qaeda leader there.

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Food riots and anti-US protests in Somalia are compounding the chaos in the long-suffering war zone in the Horn of Africa.

Meanwhile, an Amnesty International Report released Tuesday alleged that Islamist militants, as well as US-backed Ethiopian and Somali government troops, are committing widespread atrocities against civilians in the capital, Mogadishu. And a recent US strike against what it says was an Al Qaeda leader in Somalia has sparked further protests.

The Associated Press reports that Tuesday saw a second day of protests over rising food prices, with hundreds of youths burning tires, throwing stones, and blocking roads.

Somalia is just the latest country to see riots over rising food prices, after others including Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. The Financial Times has a map of the civil unrest sparked by the food crisis here.

The protests began when shopkeepers refused to accept some bank notes, over fear of counterfeiting. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Monday, and troops fired into the crowds.

The Los Angeles Times said witnesses and officials reported five killed in clashes with government troops and armed shopkeepers.

The Times reports that soaring inflation is taking place against the backdrop of a civil war that has raged since 1991, when the government collapsed and a bloody power struggle began.

A sharp rise in counterfeit currency over the last year, and the rise in global food prices, has fed skyrocketing inflation. The devaluing of Somalia's currency, the shilling, has exacerbated the problem.

Prices for basic cereals such as rice and sorghum are up between 100 percent and 400 percent from last year; the price of a sack of rice has risen from US$32 to US$52 in just one month. Adding to the problem, Somalia's local crops were devastated by drought and flooding. Somalia imports 60 percent of its grain.

The Agence France-Presse reported today that Islamist militants are urging shopkeepers to accept Somali shillings instead of US dollars to help curb inflation. They also said they would "punish" those who refuse to comply.

Inflation began rising early last year when Somali government and Ethiopian forces began a push to drive out Islamic militants.

Voice of America interviewed Cindy Holleman, the chief technical adviser with the Food Security Analysis Unit of Somalia, about the country's worsening humanitarian crisis. In the past three to four months, there has been a 40 percent increase in people who need assistance, from 1.8 million to 2.6 million, Ms. Holleman says:

"There are three main factors that are driving it. One is the skyrocketing food prices within the country. The second is parts of the country are being affected by a drought, which is deepening because the rains have failed and haven't appeared yet. And the third reason is civil insecurity, which is increasing," she says.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that human rights group Amnesty International is saying civilians in Somalia are "completely at the mercy of armed groups" who are targeting them for atrocities. The report blames all sides – Somalian government troops, their US-trained Ethiopian allies, and Islamic insurgents – for being "out of control."

But Ethiopian troops are singled out for committing especially grisly acts. The Ethiopian government has denied the charges and demanded an apology, reports the BBC.

The Amnesty report uses detailed testimony from survivors to paint a picture of a humanitarian and political crisis.

Amnesty International's Africa Program Deputy Director Michelle Kagari said:

The Independent writes that Amnesty is also calling for a probe into the US role in war crimes committed by its allies in Somalia. It writes that US troops provided equipment to the Ethiopian military and trained Ethiopian forces that Amnesty says have carried out atrocities.

It gave further details on the Amnesty report, which described a pattern of violence.

Al-Shabaab – an Islamic insurgent group which the US has designated a terrorist group – has launched attacks on residential areas. The Ethiopian troops then respond with a security sweep, with door-to-door checks in which civilians are often attacked again. Some 700,000 civilians have fled such violence.

Agence France-Presse reported on further riots Sunday in Dhusamareb – 250 miles north of Mogadishu – in the wake of a US bombing there last Thursday.

That bombing killed at least 12 people, including Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro, who the Somali government and the US believe was the leader of Al Qaeda in Somalia.

One protest organizer told the Agence France-Presse that since the attack, residents had been vomiting. "We believe the Americans used poisonous bombs," said Abdirasak Moalim Ahmed.

Agence France-Presse writes that Mr. Ayro, who was targeted in the US attack, trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was linked to the deaths of foreign aid workers in Somalia.

It wrote that the US Pentagon declined to say that Ayro was the target of Thursday's attack, but did confirm an attack on what it called an Al Qaeda military leader in Somalia.

Garowe Online, the website of a community radio station based in the capital of northern Somalia's self-governing Puntland region, reports that the Kenyan government has increased security measures on fears that Islamic militants could launch retaliatory attacks against US interests in Kenya to revenge Ayro's death.

In its latest briefing on Somalia in January, the International Crisis Group called a late December offensive against Islamists by US-backed Somalia government and Ethiopian forces a "major success for Ethiopia and the US, who feared emergence of a Taliban-style haven for Al Qaeda and other extremists."

In that "lightning offensive", hundreds of Islamists were killed and the rest dispersed.

But the group cautioned that the attack had left a political vacuum in southern Somalia and warned of further guerrilla war by Islamic militants.

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