Harun Maruf, Falastine Iman
Friday September 15, 2023
The U.S. "did not conduct airstrikes during or in support of this operation, nor were there U.S. personnel accompanying Somali forces during this counterterrorism operation against high-level al-Shabab combatants on September 6, 2023, in the vicinity of El Lahelay, Somalia," Major Jessica Tait said in an email. "U.S. forces were advising and assisting the Somali forces' mission from a remote location."
U.S. forces host a range day with the Danab Brigade in Somalia, May 9, 2021. With fewer airstrikes and less U.S. military involvement on the ground, there are signs of a resurgence of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants in Somalia, defense officials said Feb. 17, 2022. (Zoe Russell/U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. military acknowledged providing assistance to a Somali government operation against al-Shabab leaders last week in which five civilians died.
A spokesperson for the U.S. military's Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, said the U.S. forces didn't accompany Somali forces during the operation but assisted them remotely.
Tait confirmed that Somali children were among those killed in the incident. "The command's initial assessment is that one woman and three children were killed at the site," she said. "At the request of the government of Somalia, U.S. Africa Command medically evacuated two injured children, with one surviving."
The al-Shabab militant group in a statement on September 7 blamed the U.S. military for the killing of the civilians. Al-Shabab alleged the U.S. forces took away the bodies to "conceal" the truth of the incident.
The U.S. denied al-Shabab's accusation. "The claim being spread by al- Shabab that U.S. forces caused the unfortunate harm to civilians is false," AFRICOM said in the September 8 statement.
Tait said that U.S. forces "did not fire at any time while conducting the medical evacuation."
The Somali government said it was investigating the incident.
"The government has received reports that civilians were hurt. An investigation is ongoing to verify that," Minister of Information Daud Aweis told VOA Somali on Thursday. "We can't confirm yet until the investigation is done."
The Somali government declared in a statement on September 7 that three al-Shabab operatives had been killed in the operation. It identified the three as Olol Ali Guled, head of mobilization for al-Shabab's Jabhat [military] in the area; Isse Barre and Shuuke Ali Dheeg. All were described as "wanted criminals."
A Somali security commander who did not want to be identified told VOA that Guled was involved in an attack on a Somali base used by U.S. forces to train Somali forces in September 2019.
Barre was one of the commanders of al-Shabab's police in the Bay and Bakool regions but was recently sent back to his clan base to mobilize fighters in light of the government offensive, while Dheeg was a weapons storage keeper, according to the commander.
Grandfather speaks out
The grandfather of the children, Ahmed Mohamud Shuuke, told VOA Somali that the children – four boys by his son and a girl from his daughter – were staying with his wife on the night of the operation. He said he was away from home that night along with the parents of the children and didn't hear about what had happened until dawn.
"This disaster came upon them, and we don't know where it came from," he told VOA Somalia in a telephone interview.
Shuuke said he thought there had been an airstrike. He also said the family saw the tracks of vehicles at the site of the incident on the morning after the operation.
He said the bodies of his wife and grandchildren were unaccounted for. "Their bodies have been taken away," he said. "Up to now we don't know their whereabouts."
He said he had not had any contact from the government. He appealed for the return of any surviving relative.
During the interview, he did not single out any side or group for the killing, although when he spoke to al-Shabab media he appeared to have blamed "U.S. planes."
"The people who killed [the children] know themselves, and the world sees it," he said.
"I want any surviving ones given back," plus compsenation for the deaths, he said.