MOGADISHU (AFP) — Ethiopian troops Wednesday sprayed gunfire on Somali civilians, killing at least 12 after a roadside bomb blast hit a water truck in the southwestern town of Baidoa, witnesses said. The fatalities came as the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the humanitarian crisis in Somalia had reached a new low, threatening millions of people.
“At least 12 people were killed and nine others wounded by fire from Ethiopian soldiers,” witness Abdurahman Takow told AFP, adding that three of the wounded appeared to have been severely hurt.
The explosion — in the town of Baidoa — killed one Ethiopian soldier, prompting other troops to open fire in all directions, said Mohamed Adde Ali, another witness who gave a similar death toll.
In the capital Mogadishu, a Ethiopian military commander denied that his troops had opened fire, saying the bomb blast against the Ethiopia water truck was responsible for killing at least 17 civilians and one of his soldiers.
“Seventeen civilians were killed by the blast that was very heavy. We lost one of our soldiers,” the commander told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He added that Ethiopian forces, who are supporting Somali troops, killed two insurgents suspected of planting the bomb.
A similar explosion, also in Baidoa, on Monday killed four Ethiopian troops, sparking a retaliatory attack in which four civilians died.
Baidoa is 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Mogadishu.
Ethiopian troops came to Somalia to support its embattled transitional government in late 2006; the following year they defeated Islamist militants who had taken control of large parts south and central Somalia.
Remaining Islamist militia fighters have since waged a guerrilla campaign against the government as well as allied Ethiopian forces and African Union peacekeepers.
In another development, Islamist rebels overnight kidnapped and killed Colonel Abdullahi Farah, a Somali army commander in charge of Hiraan region, elders said.
“The commander was killed by masked people who accused him of being an Ethiopian puppet,” elder Mohamed Elmi told AFP.
The conflict in Somalia has left thousands dead, including many civilians, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Many of them are living in squalid conditions — prompting the Red Cross on Wednesday to issue its dire warning.
“The ICRC is deeply concerned about the plight of civilians caught up in the fighting and calls on all warring parties to comply with international humanitarian law, and to take precautions while conducting military operations to safeguard the lives and dignity of civilians,” Pascal Hundt, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Somalia, said.
The Red Cross said conditions have “worsened to their lower point in many years”.
Poor harvests were adding to the problem, resulting in barren pastures and loss of animals by herders in the chiefly pastoralist Horn of Africa nation of about 10 million.
Fearing a shortage of food and water, Hundt said: “In Somalia, natural disasters and waves of fighting seem to follow one after the other.”
Living conditions for many families are “shocking,” he added, and a large proportion of displaced people remain wholly dependant on external aid.
Somalia has been wracked by violence since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre led to a bloody power struggle that has defied numerous bids to restore normalcy.