Somalia hit by worst desert locust invasion in 25 years

By Giulia Paravicini

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Desert locusts are destroying tens of thousands of hectares of crops and grazing land in Somalia in the worst invasion in 25 years, the United Nations food agency said on Wednesday, and the infestation is likely to spread further.

The locusts have damaged about 70,000 hectares of land in Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia, threatening food supplies in both countries and the livelihoods of farming communities, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

An average swarm will destroy crops that could feed 2,500 people for a year, the FAO said.

Conflict and chaos in much of Somalia make spraying pesticide by airplane – which the FAO called the “ideal control measure” – impossible, the agency said in a statement. “The impact of our actions in the short term is going to be very limited.”

Ashagre Molla, 66, a father of seven from Woldia in the Amhara region 700 km (435 miles) north-east of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said he had so far received no help from the government.

“I was supposed to get up to 3,000 kg of teff (a cereal grass) and maize this year, but because of desert locusts and untimely rains I only got 400 kg of maize and expect only 200 kg of teff.

“This is not even enough to feed my family,” he said.

The locust plague is far more serious than the FAO earlier projected and has been made worse by unseasonably heavy rainfall and floods across East Africa that have killed hundreds of people in the past several months.

Experts say climate shocks are largely responsible for rapidly changing weather patterns in the region.

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw; Editing by Maggie Fick and Giles Elgood)

Kenyan rose-farm dam bursts, ‘sea of water’ kills 47

An aerial view of rescue efforts near destroyed houses by flooding water after a dam burst, in Solio town near Nakuru, Kenya May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Thomas Mukoya

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam on a commercial flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley burst after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that careered down a hillside and smashed into two villages, killing at least 47 people.

The walls of the reservoir, on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.

Kenya is one of the largest suppliers of cut flowers to Europe, and roses from the 3,500-acre Solai farm are exported to the Netherlands and Germany, according to Optimal Connection, its Netherlands-based handling agent.

The floodwaters carved out a dark brown chasm in the hillside and swept away everything in their path – powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school.

The bodies of two women were found several kilometers away as excavators and rescue workers armed with shovels picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors and victims.

Local police chief Japheth Kioko said the death toll could climb. “So far it is 47 dead. We are still on the ground,” he told Reuters.

After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.

In Solai, Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi, 67, said she was at home brewing tea with her son at around 8 pm (1700 GMT) when his wife rushed in to say the dam had burst and they needed to get to higher ground immediately.

“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house. He was blind so he could not run. They found his body in the morning,” she said. “My other neighbors also died. All our houses have been ruined.”

BOULDERS, ROOTS

Nakuru lies in the heart of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, home to thousands of commercial farms that grow everything from French beans to macadamia nuts to cut flowers, nearly all of which are exported to Europe.

The region is dotted with irrigation reservoirs built in the last two decades to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding agricultural sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner for East Africa’s largest economy and a major source of jobs.

Vinoj Kumar, general manager of the Solai farm, blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in a forest above the dam.

“In the past two days the intensity of the rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall,” he told Reuters. “The dam wall cracked and the water escaped.”

Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui said 450 homes had been hit by the floodwaters and safety engineers had been sent to inspect three other dams to check for cracks or breaches.

Wanjiku, the survivor, said at least one looked like it was ready to burst. “There is another dam which is also overflowing which is looking risky,” she said. “We are scared.”

One primary school had been closed as a precaution, education officials said. Arriving at the scene, Interior Minister Fred Matiangi pledged central government assistance to those affected.

To date, heavy rains have caused havoc in Kenya, killing 158 people and displacing 299,859, according to the government and Kenya Red Cross. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.

The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had also taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.

The flooding could yet get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Thomas Mukoya, George Obulutsa, Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo and Maggie Fick; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

A child dies, a child lives: why Somalia drought is not another famine

A Somali girl is seen at a internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld

DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.

When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

 

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.

WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Exclusive: U.S. suspends aid to Somalia’s battered military over graft

Exclusive: U.S. suspends aid to Somalia's battered military over graft

By Katharine Houreld

NAIROBI (Reuters) – The United States is suspending food and fuel aid for most of Somalia’s armed forces over corruption concerns, a blow to the military as African peacekeepers start to withdraw this month.

African Union (AU) troops landed in Mogadishu a decade ago to fight al Shabaab Islamist militants and Somali forces are supposed to eventually take over their duties.

But the United States, which also funds the 22,000-strong peacekeeping force, has grown frustrated that successive governments have failed to build a viable national army.

Diplomats worry that without strong Somali forces, al Shabaab could be reinvigorated, destabilize the region and offer a safe haven to other al Qaeda-linked militants or Islamic State fighters.

The U.S. suspension of aid came after the Somali military repeatedly failed to account for food and fuel, according to private correspondence between the U.S. and Somali governments seen by Reuters.

“During recent discussions between the United States and the Federal Government of Somalia, both sides agreed that the Somali National Army had failed to meet the standards for accountability for U.S. assistance,” a State Department official told Reuters last week, on condition of anonymity.

“We are adjusting U.S. assistance to SNA units, with the exception of units receiving some form of mentorship, to ensure that U.S. assistance is being used effectively and for its intended purpose,” the official said.

The U.S. suspension comes at a sensitive time. The AU force – with troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – is scheduled to leave by 2020. The first 1,000 soldiers will go by the end of 2017.

The State Department official said Washington would continue to support small, Somali special forces units mentored by U.S. personnel and would work with the Somali government to agree criteria that could restore support to other units.

“It is true that some concerns have been raised on how support was utilized and distributed. The federal government is working to address these,” Somali Minister of Defence Mohamed Mursal told Reuters.

WHERE’S THE AID?

Documents sent from the U.S. Mission to Somalia to the Somali government show U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated that the military is unable to account for its aid.

The documents paint a stark picture of a military hollowed out by corruption, unable to feed, pay or arm its soldiers – despite hundreds of millions of dollars of support.

Between May and June, a team of U.S. and Somali officials visited nine army bases to assess whether the men were receiving food the United States provides for 5,000 soldiers.

“We did not find the expected large quantities of food at any location … there was no evidence of consumption (except at two bases),” the U.S. team wrote to the Somali government.

At one base, less than a fifth of the soldiers listed by Somali commanders were present. The best-staffed base had 160 soldiers out of 550. Only 60 had weapons.

“Many appeared to be wearing brand new uniforms. This implied they were assembled merely to improve appearances,” the letter, seen by Reuters, said.

An ongoing assessment of the Somali military this year by the Somali government, African Union and United Nations drew similar conclusions.

The joint report seen by Reuters said many soldiers lacked guns, uniforms, food, vehicles or tents. Troops relied on support from AU forces or local militias to survive.

“The SNA is a fragile force with extremely weak command and control,” the report said. “They are incapable of conducting effective operations or sustaining themselves.”

Most units don’t have radios, leaving soldiers to rely on runners to get help when mobile networks go down, the report said. Troops lacked paper to write reports, toilets, boots and medical equipment such as tourniquets. Many slept under trees.

SNA units were at 62 percent of their authorized strength on average. Only 70 percent of them had weapons, the report said.

Although the report was deeply critical, diplomats praised the government for trying to quantify the scope of the problem.

“The government deserves massive praise for doing it and being willing to talk about it,” Michael Keating, the U.N.’s top official in Somalia, told Reuters.

CASH PAYMENTS SUSPENDED

The United States also suspended a program paying soldiers $100 monthly stipends in June after the federal government refused to share responsibility for receiving the payments with regional forces fighting al Shabaab.

Washington has spent $66 million on stipends over the past seven years but has halted the program several times, concerned the money was not going to frontline soldiers.

One Somali document seen by Reuters showed members of a 259-strong ceremonial brass band were receiving stipends this year meant for soldiers fighting militants.

The State Department’s watchdog said in a report published in October there were insufficient checks on the program and U.S. stipends could fund forces that commit abuses – or even support insurgents.

Officially, Somalia’s military is 26,000 strong, but the payroll is stuffed with ghost soldiers, pensioners and the dead, whose families may be receiving their payments, diplomats say.

Intermittent payments from the government have forced many active soldiers to sell their weapons, ammunition or seek other work – practices the U.S. stipends were designed to curb.

Washington has whittled down the number of troops it pays to 8,000 from over 10,000 but there is still no reliable payroll, said a Mogadishu-based security expert.

Defence Minister Mursal said the United Nations is creating a biometric database and plans to help the Somali government make cash payments directly to soldiers via mobile phones.

The new government will also set up a separate system for widows, orphans, and the wounded so the payroll would adequately represent military strength, he said.

UNDER ATTACK

The weakness of Somali forces has deadly consequences. The insurgency is striking with ever larger and more deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu and major towns.

A truck bomb killed more than 500 people in October and a suicide bomber killed at least 18 at a police academy on Thursday.

Yusuf, a 35-year-old Somali soldier stationed near the Indian Ocean port of Kismayu, knows what it’s like to depend on local militias and AU forces to stay alive.

On Sept. 26, insurgents attacked his base at Bula Gadud, killing 15 colleagues and wounding scores more before the local Jubaland militia and AU peacekeepers saved them.

“We lost several key members in that battle especially my close friend,” he told Reuters. “We tried to retreat … after using all the ammunition we had.”

A senior Somali security source said when the attack happened, the battalion of more than 1,000 soldiers had only been issued 300 guns.

Defence Minister Mursal said the Somali troops at Bulagadud have since been sent more weapons.

Somalia’s national security plan calls for a military of 18,000 soldiers, funded by the central government and operating country-wide.

Getting there will be hard. Security experts say the military is dominated by a powerful clan, the Hawiye, which would be reluctant to lose control of the lucrative security assistance revenue stream.

Many regional governments within Somalia already see the Hawiye-dominated federal forces as rivals rather than allies.

The government’s ability to push reforms depends on balancing demands from federal member states, lawmakers, clan leaders and international partners, the U.N.’s Keating said.

“It’s going to take a long time and its going to run into massive clan resistance,” he said. “Some clans are very dominant in the security forces.”

Somalia’s partners also need to get serious and coordinate better, said Matt Bryden of the think-tank Sahan Research.

According to Sahan, donors – including the EU, AU, Turkey and Uganda – have trained more than 80,000 Somali soldiers since 2004. Bryden said records are so poor it was not clear if many had taken multiple courses, or just quit afterwards.

“It’s like sand through your fingers – where are they all?”

(Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington D.C. and Khadar Hared in Nairobi; editing by David Clarke)

Bombs kill at least seven in Mogadishu

A general view shows the scene after a suicide car bomb explosion at the gate of Naso Hablod Two Hotel in Hamarweyne district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Two car bombs killed at least 17 people in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu on Saturday, police said, and Islamist group al Shabaab claimed responsibility.

A suicide car bomb was rammed into a hotel, Nasahablod Two, about 600 meters from the presidential palace, and then armed militants stormed the building, police said.

A few minutes later a car bomb exploded near the former parliament house nearby.

Ali Nur, a police officer, told Reuters 17 people, mostly policemen, had died in the blasts.

“Security forces have entered a small portion of the hotel building … the exchange of gunfire is hellish,” he said.

The police personnel who died had been stationed close to hotel’s gate. The dead also included a former lawmaker, he said.

Fighting continued to rage inside the hotel and police said the death toll was likely to rise.

Abdikadir Abdirahman, director of Amin ambulances, told Reuters the emergency service had carried 17 people injured from the hotel blast.

A huge cloud of smoke rose over the scene and a Reuters witness saw over a dozen wrecked cars and bloodstains in front of the hotel. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the vicinity.

Islamist group al Shabaab, responsible for scores of such attacks in the country’s long civil war, said it carried out Saturday’s bombings.

“We targeted ministers and security officials who were inside the hotel. We are fighting inside,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters.

He said the hotel belonged to Somalia’s internal security minister, Mohamed Abukar Islow.

Al Shabaab is fighting to topple Somalia’s internationally-backed government and impose its strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Bombs in Mogadishu two weeks ago killed at least 358 people, the worst such attacks in the country’s history, igniting nationwide outrage. Al Shabaab was widely suspected, but has not claimed responsibility.

(Additional reporting by Feisal Omar; writing by Elias Biryabarema; editing by Andrew Roche)

Somalis defy police to protest against massive truck bombings

Protesters chant slogans while demonstrating against last weekend's explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district in Mogadishu, Somalia October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Thousands of Somalis demonstrated on Wednesday against those behind bombings that killed more than 300 people at the weekend, defying police who opened fire to keep them away from where their loved-ones perished.

The twin blasts at busy junctions in the heart of Mogadishu on Saturday injured another more than 400 in what were the country’s deadliest truck bombings.

Police initially opened fire to prevent people from accessing the rubble-strewn scene of the attack, injuring at least two people, the emergency response service said.

But eventually they had to let thousands of the demonstrators gather there after they were overwhelmed by the numbers. Residents said they had never seen such a big protest in the city.

“We are demonstrating against the terrorists that massacred our people. We entered the road by force,” said Halima Abdullahi, a mother who lost six of her relatives in the attacks.

The Islamist militant group al Shabaab, which began an insurgency in 2007, has not claimed responsibility, but the method and type of attack – a large truck bomb – is increasingly used by the al Qaeda-linked organization.

Mohamed Ali, a police captain at the scene, said it was fine for the demonstrators to access the scene to express their grief.

“For some who could not see their relatives alive or dead, the only chance they have is to at least see the spot where their beloved were killed,” he told Reuters.

The government buried at least 160 of those who were killed because they could not be identified after the blast.

Masked security officers kept an eye on the protest on foot and on motorbikes. Some of the protesters sat on police trucks waving sticks and chanting: “We do not want al Shabaab”.

The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 and have been steadily losing territory.

But they retain the capacity to mount large bomb attacks. Over the past three years, the number of civilians killed by insurgent bombings has steadily climbed as al Shabaab increases the size of its bombs.

In the central town of Dusamareb, residents also marched for several hours to protest against the bombings in Mogadishu and clerics called for the war against the militants to be stepped up.

Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of Aamin Ambulances, said one pregnant demonstrator was evacuated from the Mogadishu protest after she developed complications.

“The other two were also demonstrating. They were injured by bullets which the police fired to disperse the demonstrators who wanted to enter the blast scene by force,” he said.

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Alison Williams)

Somalia calls for blood donations after bombing, Turkey sends doctors

Civilians walk at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

By Maggie Fick

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Somalia is in desperate need for donated blood to treat survivors of a truck bombing in the capital Mogadishu on Saturday that killed more than 300 people and injured at least 400 others, a minister said.

The bombing was one of the worst such attacks in Somalia. Officials said it bore the hallmarks of the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group, but they have not claimed responsibility.

Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said Somalia does not have a blood bank and that the limitations of its health care system was impeding the medical response. Countries including Turkey and Qatar are providing medical assistance.

“We are requesting blood, we are requesting assistance for verifying the dead in order for their relatives to know,” Osman told Reuters by phone from Mogadishu.

Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991, when clan warlords overthrew a dictator then turned on each other. One of the poorest countries in Africa, it faces severe food insecurity and relies on foreign donors to support its institutions and basic services.

Osman said the bodies of more than 100 people buried on Monday “were blown beyond recognition”, and that he hoped other bodies could still be identified.

Turkish doctors — mainly surgeons and specialists in spine injuries — arrived along with Turkey’s health minister on Monday.

“They are treating people in hospitals in Mogadishu,” the minister said.

Turkey evacuated 35 critically wounded Somalis to Ankara by plane on Monday, the country’s deputy prime minister Recep Akdag told reporters upon returning from Somalia. An increasingly close ally of Somalia, Turkey opened a $50 million military base in the capital last month.

Medicine from neighboring nations Djibouti and Kenya arrived by plane on Tuesday and “air ambulance” was en route from the Gulf state of Qatar, the minister said.

Qatar would be evacuating 25 more injured people to a hospital in Sudan.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Death toll from Somalia bomb attacks tops 300

A general view shows the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 14, 2017.

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – More than 300 people died after twin bomb explosions in Mogadishu, an official said on Monday, as locals packed hospitals in search of friends and relatives caught up in Somalia’s deadliest attack in a decade.

The death toll has steadily risen since Saturday, when the blasts – for which no organization had claimed responsibility by Monday morning – struck at two busy junctions in the heart of the city.

“We have confirmed 300 people died in the blast. The death toll will still be higher because some people are still missing,” Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of the city’s ambulance service, told Reuters on Monday.

Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said they had recorded 258 deaths while Ahmed Ali, a nurse at the nearby Osman Fiqi hospital, told Reuters five bodies had been sent there.

Nur said 160 of the bodies could not be recognized. “(They)were buried by the government yesterday. The others were buried by their relatives. Over a hundred injured were also brought here,” he told Reuters at the hospital.

Some of the injured were being evacuated by air to Turkey for treatment, officials said.

Locals visiting their injured relatives or collecting their bodies filled every available space in Madina hospital.

“My last time to speak with my brother was some minutes before the blast occurred. By then he told me, he was on the way to meet and was passing at K5,” Halima Nur, a local mother, told Reuters, referring to one of the junctions that was struck.

“I am afraid he was among the unrecognized charred bodies that were buried yesterday. I have no hope of getting him alive or dead. But I cannot go home.”

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15,

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

DEADLIEST SINCE INSURGENCY BEGAN

Saturday bomb attacks were the deadliest since Islamist militant group al Shabaab began an insurgency in 2007.

Neither it nor any other group had claimed responsibility, but al Shabaab, which is allied to al Qaeda, stages regular attacks in the capital and other parts of the country.

The group is waging an insurgency against Somalia’s U.N.-backed government and its African Union allies in a bid to impose its own strict interpretation of Islam.

The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 and have been steadily losing territory since then to the combined forces of AU peacekeepers and Somali security forces.

But Al Shabaab retains the capacity to mount large, complex bomb attacks. Over the past three years, the number of civilians killed by insurgent bombings has steadily climbed as al Shabaab increases the size of its bombs.

Some of those seriously injured in Saturday’s bombing were moved by ambulance to the airport on Monday morning to be flown to Turkey for further treatment, Nur added.

Workers unloaded boxes of medicine and other medical supplies from a Turkish military plane parked on the tarmac, while Turkish medical teams attended to the cases of injuries moved from the hospital for evacuation.

 

 

 

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; editing by John Stonestreet)

 

Car bombs kill at least 22 in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu: police

Civilians evacuate from the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Two car bombs in separate parts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu killed at least 22 people on Saturday and injured several others, police said.

The first explosion – in the city’s K5 Junction area which is lined with government offices, hotels, and restaurants – destroyed several buildings and set dozens of vehicles on fire.

“We know that at least 20 civilians are dead while dozens of others are wounded,” said Abdullahi Nur, a police officer who was in the area.

“The death toll will surely rise. We are still busy transporting casualties,” he said, adding that there were bodies under the rubble.

About two hours later, a second blast took place in the city’s Madina district.

“It was a car bomb. Two civilians were killed, ” Siyad Farah, a police major, told Reuters, adding that a suspect had been caught on suspicion of planting explosives.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the Islamist al Shabaab group has carried out regular attacks

The al Qaeda-allied group is waging an insurgency to topple the weak U.N.-backed government and its African Union allies and impose its own strict interpretation of Islam.

They frequently launch gun, grenade and bomb attacks in Mogadishu and other regions controlled by the federal government, though in recent years the militants have lost most territory under their control to African Union peacekeepers and government troops.

(Writing by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Trump slaps travel restrictions on North Korea, Venezuela in sweeping new ban

International passengers wait for their rides outside the international arrivals exit at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S. September 24, 2017.

By Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Sunday slapped new travel restrictions on citizens from North Korea, Venezuela and Chad, expanding to eight the list of countries covered by his original travel bans that have been derided by critics and challenged in court.

Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia were left on the list of affected countries in a new proclamation issued by the president. Restrictions on citizens from Sudan were lifted.

The measures help fulfill a campaign promise Trump made to tighten U.S. immigration procedures and align with his “America First” foreign policy vision. Unlike the president’s original bans, which had time limits, this one is open-ended.

“Making America Safe is my number one priority. We will not admit those into our country we cannot safely vet,” the president said in a tweet shortly after the proclamation was released.

Iraqi citizens will not be subject to travel prohibitions but will face enhanced scrutiny or vetting.

The current ban, enacted in March, was set to expire on Sunday evening. The new restrictions are slated to take effect on Oct. 18 and resulted from a review after Trump’s original travel bans sparked international outrage and legal challenges.

The addition of North Korea and Venezuela broadens the restrictions from the original, mostly Muslim-majority list.

An administration official, briefing reporters on a conference call, acknowledged that the number of North Koreans now traveling to the United States was very low.

Rights group Amnesty International USA condemned the measures.

“Just because the original ban was especially outrageous does not mean we should stand for yet another version of government-sanctioned discrimination,” it said in a statement.

“It is senseless and cruel to ban whole nationalities of people who are often fleeing the very same violence that the U.S. government wishes to keep out. This must not be normalized.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement the addition of North Korea and Venezuela “doesn’t obfuscate the real fact that the administration’s order is still a Muslim ban.”

The White House portrayed the restrictions as consequences for countries that did not meet new requirements for vetting of immigrants and issuing of visas. Those requirements were shared in July with foreign governments, which had 50 days to make improvements if needed, the White House said.

A number of countries made improvements by enhancing the security of travel documents or the reporting of passports that were lost or stolen. Others did not, sparking the restrictions.

The announcement came as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on Oct. 10 over the legality of Trump’s previous travel ban, including whether it discriminated against Muslims.

 

NORTH KOREA, VENEZUELA ADDED

Trump has threatened to “destroy” North Korea if it attacks the United States or its allies. Pyongyang earlier this month conducted its most powerful nuclear bomb test. The president has also directed harsh criticism at Venezuela, once hinting at

a potential military option to deal with Caracas.

But the officials described the addition of the two countries to Trump’s travel restrictions as the result of a purely objective review.

In the case of North Korea, where the suspension was sweeping and applied to both immigrants and non-immigrants, officials said it was hard for the United States to validate the identity of someone coming from North Korea or to find out if that person was a threat.

“North Korea, quite bluntly, does not cooperate whatsoever,” one official said.

The restrictions on Venezuela focused on Socialist government officials that the Trump administration blamed for the country’s slide into economic disarray, including officials from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and their immediate families.

Trump received a set of policy recommendations on Friday from acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and was briefed on the matter by other administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a White House aide said.

The rollout on Sunday was decidedly more organized than Trump’s first stab at a travel ban, which was unveiled with little warning and sparked protests at airports worldwide.

Earlier on Sunday, Trump told reporters about the ban: “The tougher, the better.”

Rather than a total ban on entry to the United States, the proposed restrictions differ by nation, based on cooperation with American security mandates, the threat the United States believes each country presents and other variables, officials said.

Somalis, for example, are barred from entering the United States as immigrants and subjected to greater screening for visits.

After the Sept. 15 bombing attack on a London train, Trump wrote on Twitter that the new ban “should be far larger, tougher and more specific – but stupidly, that would not be politically correct.”

The expiring ban blocked entry into the United States by people from the six countries for 90 days and locked out most aspiring refugees for 120 days to give Trump’s administration time to conduct a worldwide review of U.S. vetting procedures for foreign visitors.

Critics have accused the Republican president of discriminating against Muslims in violation of constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and equal protection under the law, breaking existing U.S. immigration law and stoking religious hatred.

Some federal courts blocked the ban, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to take effect in June with some restrictions.

 

(Additional reporting by James Oliphant, Yeganeh Torbati, and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Peter Cooney)