By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – A raid involving U.S. troops in Somalia has caused a rift between the precarious U.S.-backed government and a powerful clan that says innocent farmers were massacred, months after President Donald Trump approved stepped-up operations there.
The U.S. Africa command, Africom, has acknowledged that U.S. forces participated in a ground operation in support of Somali troops in the village of Bariire last week, and says it is investigating reports of civilian deaths.
It did not reply to further questions from Reuters about the incident, the second mission in Somalia this year in which it has acknowledged the participation of U.S. ground troops. A Navy Seal was killed in a raid in May.
Last week’s raid took place in an area that had been occupied by al Shabaab Islamist militants but was recaptured by government forces earlier in August.
Residents from the Habar Gidir clan, a powerful group spread across southcentral Somalia, said some villagers had weapons, but only to protect themselves from a rival clan. They said the villagers had nothing to do with militants, who had been driven away before the government forces and U.S. troops launched their raid on Friday.
“It was after morning prayers when I heard gunshots. I jumped over a wall made of iron sheets and the boy went out through the small gate,” said Muktar Moalim Abdi, 47, whose 13-year-old nephew was killed in the raid, about 50 km (30 miles) from the capital.
“They told me the boy was shot as he tried to take cover under the banana trees,” said Abdi, one of 10 relatives of the victims that spoke to Reuters along with three witnesses of the raid itself. Their statements give the most detailed public account yet of last week’s raid.
The relatives and witnesses were not able to say conclusively whether U.S. forces present during the raid had opened fire, or whether all the shooting was carried out by the Somalis that the Americans were accompanying.
The Somali government’s initial account described those killed as Islamist fighters, although within hours it issued another statement acknowledging that civilians had reportedly been killed.
A government commission set up to investigate is due to report on Thursday. Somali officials have meanwhile declined to comment further.
Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991. It now has an internationally-backed government, supported by African peacekeepers, battling al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated militia which has attacked…