African Union hits back at Somalia rape claims
ADDIS ABABA - The African Union has hit back against claims its internationally-funded troops in Somalia have gang raped women and girls, accusing the rights group behind the report of being unfair and inaccurate.
In a letter of response to Human Rights Watch released by the AU on Thursday, the pan-African bloc also said the rights group had undermined peace efforts in war-torn Somalia.
The AU said, however, that it was still investigating the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in the wake of last month's damning report into the conduct of its troops.
"The AU does not condone, and indeed has maintained a zero-tolerance stance against, any form of sexual exploitation and abuse in all its peace support operations," Maman S. Sidikou, the AU's head of mission in Somalia, wrote to HRW.
Although he said that AMISOM "reiterates its deep concern about the allegations" and was "doing all it can to ensure justice", he said HRW report was marked by "imbalance, misrepresentation and inaccuracies".
"The report, which seems to characterise AMISOM uniformed personnel as rapists and human rights abusers, is an unacceptable misrepresentation of the Mission and will no doubt undermine efforts to win the trust and respect of the Somali population," he said.
Several of the women mentioned the HRW report described how they had gone to the AU camp seeking medicine for their sick babies, but where then forced to have sex.
The vulnerable women largely came from camps in the capital Mogadishu, having fled rural Somalia during a devastating famine in 2011.
"The report has given additional ammunition to all those trying to obstruct the path towards peace and greater security in Somalia. It has also complicated AU's efforts to win the support of the local population in the fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shebab."
In particular, he criticised the rights group for refusing to share detailed evidence of abuses, and said the small sample of interviewees meant the conclusions "may not be empirically sound".
"The evidence that HRW is relying on to draw its conclusions is one-sided and incomplete," he added, calling on HRW to "undertake more scrupulous research and investigations and engage more professional, seasoned researchers".
AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has already ordered an investigation into the allegations, and the probe is due to be completed by November 30.
The 22,000-strong AMISOM force, with soldiers drawn from six nations, have been fighting alongside government troops against the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents since 2007.
AMISOM donors include the United Nations, European Union, Britain and the United States.