MOGADISHU (AFP) â€” Heavily armed Somali fighters have occupied Mogadishu’s main hospital, forcing a near shutdown in key services to patients wounded in factional fighting that has rocked the city, witnesses said Tuesday.
Dozens of gunmen from a US-backed warlord alliance took over the Keysaney Hospital in northern Mogadishu late Monday and refuse to leave despite appeals to do so and warnings the occupation violates international law, they said.
Backed by machinegun-mounted pick-ups, members of the alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) entered the facility, causing some patients to flee, and set up positions on its roof, they said.
“The ARPCT has occupied the hospital,” one Keysaney medical worker told AFP. “They have put sandbags on the roof and there are battlewagons outside.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which opened the hospital in 1992 and turned it over to the Somali Red Crescent two years later, called for fighters to leave and said it was deeply concerned for the remaining patients.
“International humanitarian law prohibits the use of a hospital for the conduct of hostilities,” the ICRC said in a statement, noting that medical services had been “reduced to a minimum” at a time of critical need.
“The ICRC calls for the withdrawal of fighters from the hospital as soon as possible,” it said.
A senior alliance commander involved in the occupation told AFP that the fighters had deployed at the hospital to protect it from a possible attack by Islamist militia they have been battling.
“Our aim is not to take the hospital but to protect it from the Islamic courts militia that could prevent people from getting medical aid,” he said.
“The courts planned to take the hospital and turn it into an Islamic hospital and that is what we are against,” he said. “Our fighters took no patients, looted nothing and did not interfere with the hospital’s business.”
On Monday, the United Nations warned that interfering with humanitarian operations or denying the wounded access to medical care could be prosecuted as a war crime.
“Any deliberate attempt to prevent wounded or civilians receiving assistance and protection during fighting in the city may constitute elements of future war crimes,” said Eric Laroche, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.
Keysaney has received hundreds of casualties, many of them civilians, from fighting between the alliance and militia loyal to Mogadishu’s Islamic courts since the battles began in February, killing more than 300 people.
At least 62 people have been killed and hundreds wounded, most of them civilians, in the latest round of clashes that began on Wednesday, worsened on Thursday and then exploded on Saturday, when 30 died. Although a tense lull has settled over the city since Monday, there are widespread fears that fighting will erupt again and the ICRC said the occupation of the hospital would hurt efforts to treat any wounded.
The fighting pits Islamists against the ARPCT, set up in February with US backing to curb the growing influence of Islamic courts and track down extremists, including Al Qaeda members, they are allegedly harbouring.
The courts, which have declared a holy war against the alliance, deny the accusations.