In Italy, Belgium and Italy, Somalia peacekeeping scandals growing
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ When U.N. peacekeepers from 21 countries went to Somalia in ``Operation Restore Hope,″ their mission was to protect and feed a population suffering in the anarchy of civil war.
But a far different image of that intervention has been emerging in recent months. Belgian peacekeepers are accused of torturing Somali children and Italian peacekeepers of raping Somali women. A commission appointed by the Canadian government is examining allegations that Canadian peacekeepers beat a Somali teen-ager to death and shot other civilians unprovoked.
The 1993-95 U.N. mission staved off mass starvation in Somalia, but it also enmeshed foreign peackeepers in battles against heavily armed Somali factions. Dozens of peacekeepers died, and word increasingly is emerging of foreign troops brutalizing the civilians they were there to help.
Addressing the growing scandal Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement in New York: ``I am appalled and outraged by these actions, which are unacceptable and counter to everything peacekeeping stands for.″
On the same day as Annan spoke out, trial opened in Belgium for two members of an elite paratroop unit accused of torturing a Somali boy by dangling him over an open fire.
It was a playful game meant to discourage the child from stealing, the lawyer for paratroopers Claude Baert and Kurt Coelus insisted. Prosecutors asked for a one-month jail term for both men.
Other cases of alleged Belgian atrocities expected to come to trial in coming months include:
_A paratrooper force-fed pork and saltwater to a Muslim Somali child until the boy vomited _ again, allegedly to discourage stealing.
_Soldiers forced another boy accused of stealing into a closed container, where he languished in scorching heat without water for two days. He died.
_A Belgian soldier urinating in the face of a Somali, who in a photograph of the incident appears either injured or dead.
The allegations aren’t only against Belgian peacekeepers.
Last weekend, two Italian generals resigned in the face of increasing evidence that their soldiers tortured Somali villagers. The resignations came a day after an Italian magazine published photos that it said showed an Italian soldier raping a Somali woman.
In Canada, the army disbanded an entire regiment over allegations of abuse in Somalia, including the vicious beating death of a teen-ager and the fatal shootings of three other Somalis.
An investigating panel is to report its findings June 30 in the scandal, which already has led Canada’s chief of defense to resign over allegations of a cover-up.
In Belgium, Canada and Italy, the cases center on snapshots taken by troops while their fellow soldiers pose with victims.
The surfacing allegations and graphic photos have horrified the nations whose peacekeepers have been implicated _ and left many wondering why Somalia, of all U.N. peacekeeping missions, gave rise to such violent behavior.
``Beyond question, the motives were racist. Unbelievable that this happens during a peace mission,″ said Johan Leman, director of Belgium’s government-created Center Against Racism.
At the start of Operation Restore Hope, U.N. peacekeepers were for the most part welcomed. They safeguarded deliveries of aid to Somalis, who faced possible famine in a vicious civil war between feuding clans.
The operation turned sour in mid-1993 after 25 Pakistani peacekeepers were murdered, and the United Nations decided to hunt down the killers.
From famine relief, the mission expanded into a small-scale street war against intransigent warlords.
Before the failed manhunt, peacekeepers were frustrated by a U.N. mandate that initially forbade the use of force except in self-defense.
A Belgian defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited the stark difference between the pictures in international news media of a hungry nation, desperately needing help, and the situation on the ground _ where peacekeepers were subjected to constant taunting, rock-throwing and petty thefts by Somalis, and forbidden do anything about it.
Overall, the U.N. operation claimed the lives of more than 100 peacekeepers, including 42 American troops.
On their own, some soldiers exacted revenge. The score-settling was made easier by the fact that peacekeepers often were in remote areas, away from most scrutiny _ allowing them to act almost as warlords themselves.
Annan insisted Monday that the United Nations has learned the lessons of the peacekeeper atrocities in Somalia and taken steps against their being repeated _ peacekeepers and commanders are better-trained today in their responsibilities to civilians, he said.
``Every possible effort will be made on the part of the United Nations to ensure that such incidents do not recur,″ he said.
Punishing peacekeepers who err, however, is solely the responsibility of individual governments, the United Nations insists.