An al-Shabaab fighter stands guard during a public flogging in the town of Bula Marer, Somalia.

(New York) - The scale and severity of the crimes during the intense fighting in Somalia in recent months demonstrates the need for an international commission of inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation found that all of the parties to the armed conflict have been responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians since May 2010. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes.

The intense fighting in Mogadishu, the capital, between the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab and the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union peacekeepers over the past eight months has killed and wounded thousands of civilians and forced all but the poorest residents to flee the capital.

"The world has for too long ignored the appalling cost to civilians of the fighting in Mogadishu," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "An international commission of inquiry is urgently needed to investigate war crimes committed in Somalia by all sides."

Al-Shabaab forces have also been responsible for targeted killings of people allegedly linked to the transitional government, the forced recruitment of children, and abuses against civilians under their control.

Mogadishu has been wracked by conflict since late 2006, when an Ethiopian military intervention ousted a coalition of Islamic courts from power. Although Ethiopian forces withdrew from the city by January 2009, insurgents continue to fight the transitional government and its supporters.

In May 2010 the armed opposition - including al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam insurgents - began a new offensive to topple the TFG, which is recognized internationally. The transitional government controls only a few areas of Mogadishu. It is backed by more than 8,000 peacekeeping troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa militias, a moderate Somali Islamic group erratically allied to the transitional government.

The offensive heightened over the Islamic month of Ramadan in August and September, when al-Shabaab called for a "final offensive" to oust the transitional government, shortly after al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the July 11 bombings in Kampala, Uganda. Al-Shabaab claimed the bombings, which killed 76 people and wounded 70 others, were in response to Uganda's leading political and military role in the Somalia peacekeeping force.

Tens of thousands of civilians fled the city between May and November due to repeated, indiscriminate attacks of rocket and mortar fire by all parties to the conflict, and other abuses.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported on January 27, 2011, that the two hospitals it supports in Mogadishu received a record number of patients in 2010, including about 2,300 women and children with war-related injuries.

In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 82 refugees from Mogadishu who had fled the offensive since May and sought refuge in the Daadab refugee camp in northern Kenya. Human Rights Watch research indicated that both al-Shabaab and the peacekeepers had intensified attacks in late 2010, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians through the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery, mortars, and rockets in populated areas.

"The fighting in Mogadishu has provoked massive numbers of people to flee the city in recent months," Peligal said. "But the poorest of the poor remain in the city, with nowhere to go, no access to basic services, and they suffer constantly from the ongoing conflict."

Indiscriminate Attacks by All Parties
Both sides conducted indiscriminate bombardments of populated areas from May to November that resulted in scores of civilian casualties. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that civilians in Mogadishu were trapped between the "hit and run" tactics of the insurgent al-Shabaab fighters, who generally launch mortar rounds at transitional government and peacekeepers' positions from populated areas and then flee, and the indiscriminate response of the peacekeepers and transitional government troops.

The laws of war prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which strike military targets and civilians without distinction. Examples include attacks that are not directed at a specific military objective, or that use weapons that cannot be targeted at a specific military objective. Forces also violate the laws of war when they move into densely populated areas and conduct attacks without taking all feasible precautions to ensure that the target is military and not civilian.

Many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch described a consistent pattern: al-Shabaab would launch one or two rockets or fire a mortar round at transitional government and peacekeeping positions within or near populated areas under their control, prompting a sustained bombardment with mortars and rockets by the peacekeepers and transitional government forces. These heavy bombardments of civilian areas have provoked the repeated displacement of residents.

Witnesses said that after launching their attacks, al-Shabaab fighters would immediately leave the area in vehicles or hide among the civilians. People described this kind of operation taking place in the districts of Hodan, Halwadaag, Wardighley, al-Ashabya, K-13, Bar Huba, and Bakara Market.

Yusuf, a 42-year-old man from Kismayo who went to Mogadishu during Ramadan, told Human Rights Watch: "Al-Shabaab attacks from areas where civilians are. They come to the neighborhood, mount their mortars, shoot, and leave. [Some] run away and some others just hide in the community. When AMISOM's response comes, there's nobody from al-Shabaab there anymore."

Residents told Human Rights Watch that the peacekeepers typically respond to the attacks with a sustained barrage of heavy artillery, used indiscriminately. Muktar Barre Aden, a 43-year-old bus driver from the Huruwe area in Mogadishu, said: "Both sides attack civilians...but the main problem is AMISOM. They're shelling too much; they're just bombing from their bases. What strategy is that?"

Other witnesses said that the peacekeepers responded with rockets and mortars even toward populated areas where there was no evident military objective. Areas inside the Bakara Market that have been repeatedly hit include the fruit and vegetable area, the bus station, the gold area, the clothes area, and the money exchange area - all with heavy civilian traffic. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian property, as well as attacks where the anticipated loss of civilian life is disproportionate to the expected military gain.

A 30-year-old woman from Bakara Market said: "During Ramadan the worst days were the 21st, 27th, and 29th days [August 31, September 6, and September 8]. There was a lot of firing into Bakara. Al-Shabaab hit targets directly, but AMISOM hit public places, especially the bus and parking at the market. I lived in the center of the market. This was the worst place. The parking lot of the market and the bus station and the place gold was sold were all hit the worst."

Human Rights Watch also received reports that the peacekeepers shelled areas under al-Shabaab control intensively and indiscriminately in the aftermath of the July 11 attacks in Kampala. A 37-year-old merchant in Bakara Market from the Bar Huba area in Mogadishu told Human Rights Watch: "The day after [Kampala] they [AMISOM] fired upon the Bakara Market and Bar Huba. It was non-stop shelling for 24 hours. From that day, [AMISOM] started targeting civilians more and more."

"Both al-Shabaab and the peacekeepers are conducting attacks with little regard for the safety of the civilian population," Peligal said. "Those responsible for indiscriminate shelling should be prosecuted for war crimes."

Failure to Warn Civilians
The laws of war require warring parties to take constant care to spare the civilian population, and give effective, advance warning of attacks that may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit. Neither side in Mogadishu has provided sufficient warnings to civilians in areas affected by planned offensives, Human Rights Watch said.

Witnesses in areas under government control said that neither the transitional government nor the peacekeepers have ever distributed information to civilians about imminent fighting and the necessity to leave.

Human Rights Watch received conflicting reports about al-Shabaab's conduct. In some cases, people told Human Rights Watch that al-Shabaab disseminated flyers and made some limited public announcement using megaphones to tell civilians to leave certain areas. But in other cases, residents said al-Shabaab fighters stopped them from leaving areas where heavy fighting was taking place.

Targeted Killings in Areas Under al-Shabaab Control
Witnesses and family members of victims described targeted killings by alleged al-Shabaab members in areas under the control of transitional government employees and their relatives, or people suspected to have connections with the government.

A 25-year-old mother of two from Huruwe told Human Rights Watch that her father and two brothers were killed by al-Shabaab:

Anybody related to the TFG, even indirectly, is targeted with all of his family. My father was a police officer. When [al-Shabaab] took over the area, they were asking people in the neighborhood who was a TFG member. And the neighbors spied on us. They came masked; you couldn't even know who was shooting. My father was coming back to the house for dinner; they shot him in the chest. He was in his police uniform. One of my brothers ran toward him, and they shot him dead. Another brother was killed later, after two months. He was beheaded. After his killing, we all ran away.

Under the laws of war, police normally have the status of civilians. However, police units that take part in military operations or otherwise engage in military functions may be targeted as combatants. Individual police officers may only be targeted when they are taking a direct part in the hostilities. Everyone in custody must be treated humanely.

Another woman said her family was targeted during the Ramadan offensive because she and her husband worked for the transitional government:

My daughter, my husband, and my mother were all killed by al-Shabaab. This happened when they took over our area. My family was all killed and I was injured, and I ran away. They were against all people working with the TFG. Al-Shabaab says people working with the TFG are all Christians; they used to call us from unknown numbers and threaten us. After the killings, I was targeted every now and then; they used to come to my place unarmed. And my family was destroyed, and I found myself alone in a ruined house. Even now I live in fear.

Forced Recruitment of Young Men and Children by al-Shabaab
Young men and boys living in areas controlled by al-Shabaab in Mogadishu are at increasing risk of being forcibly recruited by the insurgency, dozens of people told Human Rights Watch. The vast majority of individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of the imminent threat of forced recruitment, and families with boys cited the threat as one of the main reasons to flee Mogadishu.

Family members consistently told Human Rights Watch researchers that al-Shabaab abducted children from duksis (Islamic schools), playgrounds, and homes, coercing children into joining by offering them money, phones, or food. The children were then reportedly trained to fight on the front line, including as suicide bombers. There have also been credible reports of the transitional government and allied militia using children, but Human Rights Watch could not confirm this. An international treaty to which Somalia is a signatory prohibits any recruitment of individuals below the age of 18 into non-state armed groups.

"The increasing use of children as cannon fodder is a new low in the conflict in Somalia." Peligal said. "Any commander who recruits or coerces children to take part in the fighting is committing a war crime."