NAIROBI, Kenya – African Union peacekeepers are indiscriminately shelling residential areas of Somalia's capital, according to internal AU reports reviewed by The Associated Press.
The evaluation was made months before Somali militants claimed they carried out twin bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda last week — attacks the insurgents said were to avenge civilian deaths caused by AU soldiers.
The series of reports, stamped for "Internal Use Only" and issued from April to June, said that if indiscriminate shelling continues, the AU mission will lose the support of the Somali people.
Civilians have suffered through nearly two decades of violent chaos in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, since the country's government was overthrown in 1991. Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants now control large portions of the capital, and much of the country's southern and central regions.
The AU force, known as AMISOM, has long been criticized by human rights groups for civilian deaths in Somalia, and the internal reports seen by AP show the mission itself is aware of the problem.
In a report issued in May, the AU expressed concern that the force "may not be adequately giving the issue of indiscriminate shelling of civilians the urgent attention it deserves."
A similar report in June said AMISOM "continues to underestimate the importance of being seen to address this critical issue."
An AU spokesman, Maj. Barigye Bahoku, denied Wednesday that AU forces kill civilians, saying the deaths are caused by extremists who attack government and AU troops.
"Too many civilians are caught in the crossfire, but the responsibility for this lies on the destructive extremists who unleash reckless attacks on (government) and AMISOM forces," Bahoku said.
Al-Shabab, the Muslim militant group that claimed responsibility for the July 11 attacks on a Kampala rugby club and restaurant packed with people watching the World Cup final on television, had long threatened to strike outside of Somalia's borders. Uganda is one of two African nations that contribute troops to the more than 5,000-member AU force in Somalia.
"We warned Uganda not to deploy troops to Somalia; they ignored us," said Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabab's spokesman. "We warned them to stop massacring our people, and they ignored that. The explosions in Kampala were only a minor message to them. ... We will target them everywhere if Uganda does not withdraw from our land."
He said Burundi, which also contributes to the AU force, could also face attacks.
Shelling is a near-daily occurrence in Somalia's capital, and international rights groups have decried the deadly impact on civilians.
Human Rights Watch said in a report in April that major parties to the conflict have carried out "numerous indiscriminate attacks ... with terrible consequences for the civilian population."
The report accused Somali government troops and African peacekeepers of lobbing mortar rounds toward areas considered the source of incoming fire, or "simply bombarding areas such as Bakara market that are opposition strongholds."
"Such attacks, while of limited military value, cause considerable loss of civilian life and property damage," Human Rights Watch said.
Somalia's former state minister for defense, Yusuf Mohamed Siyad, told the AP he once witnessed more than 60 artillery shells, missiles and mortars fired into residential areas and the Bakara market in response to three mortars fired by militants.
Siyad resigned from his position last month because he said the government had failed to deliver either security or services to the public.
Earlier this month, after an artillery shell killed families who sought shelter in a building in another popular market, the head of Mogadishu's ambulance service said he believed the round was too strong to have been fired by Islamist militants.
"It was so strong that it obliterated the building," Ali Muse said. "The scene was scary. Human flesh was scattered everywhere."