Running out of time: East Africa faces new locust threat

By Omar Mohammed and Dawit Endeshaw

NAIROBI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Countries in East Africa are racing against time to prevent new swarms of locusts wreaking havoc with crops and livelihoods after the worst infestation in generations.

A lack of expertise in controlling the pests is not their only problem: Kenya temporarily ran out of pesticides, Ethiopia needs more planes and Somalia and Yemen, torn by civil war, can’t guarantee exterminators’ safety.

Locust swarms have been recorded in the region since biblical times, but unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change have created ideal conditions for insect numbers to surge, scientists say.

Warmer seas are creating more rain, wakening dormant eggs, and cyclones that disperse the swarms are getting stronger and more frequent.

In Ethiopia the locusts have reached the fertile Rift Valley farmland and stripped grazing grounds in Kenya and Somalia. Swarms can travel up to 150 km (93 miles) a day and contain between 40-80 million locusts per square kilometer.

If left unchecked, the number of locusts in East Africa could explode 400-fold by June. That would devastate harvests in a region with more than 19 million hungry people, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned.

Uganda has deployed the military. Kenya has trained hundreds of youth cadets to spray. Lacking pesticides, some security forces in Somalia have shot anti-aircraft guns at swarms darkening the skies.

Everyone is racing the rains expected in March: the next generation of larvae is already wriggling from the ground, just as farmers plant their seeds.

“The second wave is coming,” said Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s head of resilience for Eastern Africa. “As crops are planted, locusts will eat everything.”

The impact so far on agriculture, which generates about a third of East Africa’s economic output, is unknown, but FAO is using satellite images to assess the damage, he said.

FILE PHOTO: A swarm of desert locusts flies over a ranch near the town on Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

PESTICIDE SHORTAGES

In Kenya, the region’s wealthiest and most stable country, the locusts are mostly in the semi-arid north, although some crops have been affected, said Stanley Kipkoech, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture.

This month, Kenya ran out of pesticide for about a week and a half, he said. Farmers watched helplessly as their families’ crops were devoured.

In Ethiopia, the government can only afford to rent four planes for aerial spraying, but it needs at least twice that number to contain the outbreak before harvesting begins in March, Zebdewos Salato, director of plant protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Reuters.

“We are running out of time,” he said.

Ethiopia’s single pesticide factory is working flat out.

The country needs 500,000 liters for the upcoming harvest and planting season but is struggling to produce its maximum 200,000 liters after foreign exchange shortages delayed the purchase of chemicals, the factory’s chief executive Simeneh Altaye said.

FAO is helping the government to procure planes, vehicles and sprayers, said Fatouma Seid, the agency’s representative in Ethiopia. It is also urgently trying to buy pesticides from Europe.

MONEY AND GUNS

Pest controllers in Somalia can’t enter areas controlled by the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency, said Aidid Suleiman Hashi, environment minister for the southern region of Jubbaland.

When the locusts invaded, residents blew horns, beat drums and rang bells to scare away the insects. Al Shabaab fired anti-craft and machine guns at the swarms, Hashi said. Jubbaland forces, not to be outdone, did so too.

Under such circumstances, contractors are reluctant to do aerial spraying, FAO said.

Meanwhile, locusts – which have a life cycle of three months – are breeding. FAO says each generation is an average of 20 times more numerous.

When eggs hatch, as they are doing now in northern Kenya, the hungry young locusts are earthbound for two weeks and more vulnerable to spraying than when they grow wings.

After that, they take to the air in swarms so dense they have forced aircraft to divert. A single square kilometer swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

FAO said containing the plague will cost at least $138 million. So far, donors have pledged $52 million. Failure means more hunger in a region already battered by conflict and climate shocks.

Since 2016, there have been droughts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, then floods, Ferrand said. In South Sudan, more than half the population already faces food shortages.

CLIMATE CHANGE

The rains that blessed the region with a bumper crop last year after a prolonged drought also brought a curse.

A cyclical weather pattern in the Indian Ocean, intensified by rising sea temperatures, contributed to one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades, said Nathanial Matthews of the Stockholm-based Global Resilience Partnership, a public-private partnership focused on climate change.

Locusts hatched in Yemen, largely ignored in the chaos of the civil war. They migrated across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, then spread to Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Now they have been spotted in Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania.

The rains awoke the dormant eggs then stronger and more numerous cyclones scattered the insects. Eight cyclones tore across the Indian Ocean in 2019, the highest number in a single year since records began, said Matthews.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe, Somalia, Denis Dumo in Juba; Writing by Omar Mohammed; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

African locust invasion deepens hunger crisis for Horn of Africa

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Climate change may be powering the swarms of desert locusts that have invaded eastern Africa, ravaging crops, decimating pasture and deepening a hunger crisis, locust and climate experts said.

Hundreds of millions of the insects have swept over the Horn of Africa in the worst outbreak in a quarter of a century, says the United Nations.

By June, the fast-breeding locusts – already devouring huge swathes of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – could grow by 500 times and move into Uganda and South Sudan.

The hungry swarms threaten to exacerbate food insecurity in a region where up to 25 million people are reeling from three consecutive years of droughts and floods, say aid agencies.

Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said the swarms formed after cyclones dumped vast amounts of rain in the deserts of Oman – creating perfect breeding conditions.

“We know that cyclones are the originators of swarms – and in the past 10 years, there’s been an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean,” said Cressman, adding that there were two cyclones in 2018 and eight in 2019.

“Normally there’s none, or maybe one. So this is very unusual. It’s difficult to attribute to climate change directly, but if this trend of increased frequency of cyclones in Indian Ocean continues, then certainly that’s going to translate to an increase in locust swarms in the Horn of Africa.”

The infestation from the Arabian peninsula has also hit countries such as India and Pakistan, with concern growing about new swarms forming in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

Climate scientist Roxy Koll Mathew from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune said increased cyclones were caused by warmer seas, partly attributable to climate change.

“The West Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea, was warmer than usual during the last two seasons,” said Mathew.

“This is largely due to a phenomenon called Indian Ocean Dipole, and also due to the rising ocean temperatures associated with global warming.”

The swarms – one reportedly measuring 40 km by 60 km – have already devoured tens of thousands of hectares of crops, such as maize, sorghum and teff, and ravaged pasture for livestock.

If not contained, the potential for destruction is enormous – a locust swarm of a square kilometre is able to eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people, says the FAO.

Authorities are responding with aerial spraying of pesticides, but experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity as desert locusts can travel up to 150 km in a day and multiply at terrifying speeds.

The U.N. has appealed to international donors for $70 million in emergency aid to tackle the infestation and help communities to recover after losing crops and cattle.

Aid workers said increasingly erratic weather in east Africa – which saw a prolonged drought followed by heavy rains in late 2019 – was aggravating the infestation.

“This outbreak was clearly worsened by unusually heavy rains in the region and there is an interaction with the unusual cyclonic activity,” said Francesco Rigamonti, Oxfam’s regional humanitarian coordinator.

“It’s difficult to say that it is due to climate change – but there is an interaction between the two. What we do know is that we are having a lot of extreme events like droughts, floods and now locusts in the region, so we need to be prepared.”

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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)