The Ethiopian military, Somali government, and insurgent groups operating in Mogadishu must cease all indiscriminate attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the parties to the conflict to take all necessary steps to protect the civilian population from further fighting, including ensuring access to humanitarian assistance.

Fighting between Ethiopian armed forces and insurgent groups in Mogadishu escalated between March 29 and April 2 and resulted in deaths and injuries to hundreds of civilians, including from indiscriminate shelling and mortar attacks on heavily populated areas. According to United Nations estimates, 100,000 people have fled the Somali capital since February, including tens of thousands in the past week. A ceasefire is currently in effect but further fighting is anticipated.

“Civilians in Mogadishu are paying an intolerable price for the failure of all sides to abide by the rules of warfare,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “The warring parties are legally obliged to protect civilians and to stop indiscriminate attacks.”

The escalation in fighting in Mogadishu followed weeks of increasing attacks by insurgents and counter-attacks by Ethiopian armed forces supporting the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Residents living in targeted areas of Mogadishu, primarily in the southwestern and central quarters of the town, have described near constant artillery and rocket fire from Ethiopian forces between March 29 and April 2, as the three-day ceasefire came into effect.

The insurgents are believed to include remnants of the Union of Islamic Courts militia as well as other clan militia, and are reportedly armed with heavy weaponry, including anti-aircraft guns, mortars and some artillery. In response to the insurgent attacks, Ethiopian forces used helicopter gunships and sent barrages of artillery and Katyusha rockets into neighborhoods thought to be insurgent strongholds.

The densely populated areas around Mogadishu stadium, Tawfiq, Hamar-Bile, Hararyaale, Ali Kamiin, Suuq Ba’aad, and other Mogadishu neighborhoods have been specifically targeted. After several days of shelling, Somali government officials publicly ordered residents to vacate entire neighborhoods alongside the 21st October Road of Mogadishu in order to flush out the armed attackers. One government official told the media: “We call on the civilians living in terrorist-held areas in Mogadishu to abandon their houses because it is possible that government troops may target these areas any time.”

The laws of war require parties to a conflict, to the extent feasible, to remove civilians under their control from the vicinity of military targets and to give effective advance warnings of attacks. However, doing so does not relieve an attacking force of the obligation against conducting attacks that cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians or would be expected to cause disproportionate civilian harm.

“Ordering people out of their homes doesn’t allow an army to ignore the fate of those who remain,” said Gagnon. “The Somali government should ensure that Somali and Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu respect the laws of war, especially to protect civilians.”

Most of the people displaced from Mogadishu have fled to neighboring towns such as Afgoe and Balad. There are also reports that hundreds of displaced people have traveled as far as Dhobley, near the Kenyan border. The Kenyan government closed the border with Somalia in January, after Ethiopian forces attacked and ousted the Union of Islamic Courts from most of southern Somalia in a rapid military campaign.

The Somali government has apparently closed many of the airstrips around Mogadishu – including for humanitarian agencies – and there are concerns that thousands of residents and displaced people outside the town are without vital humanitarian aid, including water, food, and shelter. Where civilians are displaced for security or imperative military reasons, the laws of war require that all possible measures be taken so that they receive satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.

On April 4, a joint committee of Hawiye clan elders and the Ethiopian military toured the frontline areas following a temporary ceasefire agreement in order to retrieve and bury the dead. Eyewitnesses described bodies littered alongside the main street linking Mogadishu’s football stadium and Florence junction in Wardhigley district.

Although the ceasefire agreement is holding, the agreement remains fragile and renewed fighting is anticipated. As a result, scores of civilians continue to flee the city.