US special forces have been accused of complicity in the deaths of civilians after five unarmed men were killed during a raid by Somali troops last week that they “aided and assisted”.
The casualties were described as banana farmers by local inhabitants, and appear to have been shot while trying to flee the site of the operation, which officials say targeted commanders of the al-Shabaab extremist group.
Somali intelligence officials say three men detained in the raid on a village in the Lower Shabelle region were senior militants.
Mohamed Sheikh Mohamud, a farmer in the village of Ma’alinka, 37 miles south of Mogadishu, told the Guardian the operation started at about 1am last Thursday when “forces came down from a helicopter and started shooting the people in the farm”.
Mohamud said he knew the five men killed. Two were tractor drivers at a banana farm, and three were cattle farmers.
Anisa Abdullahi, a mortuary attendant who inspected the bodies when they were brought into the Medina hospital in Mogadishu the day after the raid, said four of the men died from fatal bullet wounds to the back and one was killed by a wound to the chest.
“After checking, we found all died because of gun shots. The type of the weapon is one type, as the wound holes have similar sizes,” Anisa Abdullahi told the Guardian.
There are no accounts of any sustained resistance to the special forces during the raid. Four Somali security officials and a senior officer with the Amisom regional force based in Mogadishu said they did not believe any weapons had been seized during the operation.
A second resident in the area said he just left the farm when he heard the first shot.
“It was past midnight and all was peaceful when the shooting began. Nobody fired at them as the people there were not armed. They shot the victims from close range and killed them,” said Hassan Muhidin, a farmer.
The US has ramped up military efforts against al-Shabaab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in sub-Saharan Africa, under the Trump administration.
The exact role of the US forces during the raid last week is unclear. There are several hundred US troops in Somalia whose primary role is to enhance the local military’s ability to fight al-Shabaab, which is affiliated to al-Qaida.
Ali Mohamed Moalin, a traditional elder close to where the alleged raid took place on Wednesday night, told the AFP news agency that “two military helicopters” were involved, as well as “some foreign special forces”.
A spokesman for Somalia’s internal security ministry, Abdiasis Ali Mohamed (better known as Abdiasis Hildhiban), confirmed the raid saying troops “including Somali government forces and their friends raided an enemy target … and killed al-Shabaab members.”
US troops routinely accompany their Somali charges on operations. One special forces soldier during a raid on a village last year, the first US soldier to die in Somali since the 1993 Black Hawk Down debacle.
A spokesperson for the US defence department’s Africa Command said that “US forces, in an advise-and-assist capacity, partnered in a Somali-led operation to disrupt and degrade al-Shabaab’s terrorist network near Bulcida, Somalia on 9 May.”
Earlier this year the Guardian revealed that dozens of civilians have been killed and wounded in Somalia as airstrikes assisted or executed by the US against Islamist militants have increased to unprecedented levels.
Many raids and airstrikes occur in remote locations and al-Shabaab has a long history of exaggerating civilian casualties. But US forces frequently struggle to identify targets in a complex and dynamic environment.
Hassan Abdi Jim’ale, an elder from Ma’alinka, claimed: “the Americans” were responsible for Thursday’s shooting.
“They do not kill al-Shabaab. They only kill civilians,” he said.
A statement from Africom said the reports alleging civilian casualties were being taken seriously.
“As with any allegations of civilian casualties we receive, US Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, Africom will determine the next appropriate step,” the statement read.
“The Department of Defense is fully committed to countering the threat of global terrorism, and will continue to support capable partners in the region.”
A series of offensives has failed to dislodge al-Shabaab from its strongholds.
Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.
The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.
Earlier this month a woman was stoned to death after being convicted of bigamy and adultery.