Thousands of Somalis displaced by fighting along the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia border urgently need water and food, local officials say, as humanitarian workers in Kenya's northeastern town of Mandera continue to register refugees.
"The people are weak, not only [due to] the recent fighting but also the hard punishment and oppression [by Al-Shabab militia] which had already forced many of them to flee to the neighbouring country [Kenya]," Hassan Abdinor, the district commissioner for Somalia's Gedo region, told IRIN on 10 March.
Many Al-Shabab fighters captured by fighters loyal to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are being held in Gedo region, on the border with Ethiopia, Abdinor said.
Thousands of people were displaced in the region, as well as in the Somali town of Bulo Hawo - near the border with Kenya – during days of fighting between pro-government Somali troops who managed to wrest the town from the control of Al-Shabab militants earlier this month.
Abdinor, who is also a member of the command leading the pro-government troops, told IRIN they had trucked water to those displaced who failed to reach Mandera because Kenya had closed the border.
"We came into a region where its people have been affected by oppression, poor livelihoods due to devastating drought and where aid agencies, which had been helping them since the collapse of the Somali government, have been chased away," he said. "There is no insecurity in the towns of Luk, Bulo Hawo and Elwak, where our forces have taken control, they are now calm; we call on aid agencies to come to assist the needy people."
Abdinor said his group had talked to Kenyan officials, urging them to re-open the border "so that the returnees can move back to their homes".
Regarding claims that a pro-government militia group, Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, had killed civilians and captured others, Abdinor said: "There are no civilians who were taken as prisoners or killed; we are fighting for the liberation of our people and thus we cannot kill civilians, those detained during our recapture of this town [Bulo Hawo] and who were later recognized as civilians were released."
However, Abdinor said some 23 captured Al-Shabab fighters were being held in a prison.
"We don't want to kill brainwashed teenagers who were used by people who don’t favour the interest of the country and the Somalis; so those we have here we feel were misled; our intention is to keep them in prison, to orientate and clear their brainwashed minds," he said. "Later we are going to release them. Furthermore, we call on those [still] in the [bush] to come back to their homes..."
Abdinor added: "We are keeping them at the border town of Dolow, in Somalia; they were not taken to Ethiopia."
Shariff Abduwahid, Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a spokesman, told IRIN on 9 March that his group had taken control of Bulo Hawo, which had been under Al-Shabab control for the past three years.
He also appealed to aid agencies to assist the civilians remaining in Bulo Hawo. "Many people in Bulo Hawo were displaced [by the fighting]; most of them fled to Mandera, although some civilians are still with us in the town," Abduwahid said. "We have assisted those who remained with water to drink; their security is good and we urge aid agencies to come to their aid."
Regarding reports that women and children were among the casualties of the fighting in Bulo Hawa, Abduwahid said only those who were part of the fighting were killed, "including women who used to cook for Al-Shabab fighters, we confirm that".
He said two young men killed in the northern Gedo district of Luk were armed when they were found "so that is how they were killed".
Abduwahid maintained that his group did not kill children: "We orient such children; as you know there were children who were held while laying explosives in Galgadud region, we have taken them to Ahlusunna orientation schools...
"Our aim is to explain the right way of Islamic teachings, we will take them back to Islamic schools where they will settle down, I hope we shall win their hearts,” Abduwahid added.
An aid worker, who requested anonymity, told IRIN Mandera was calm and the onus was now on humanitarian workers to provide water to the displaced and complete refugee registration.
"We must address the critical issue of water for the refugees as well as the local population as the town tries to cope with an influx of people," the aid worker said.
The aid worker said the refugees, many of them displaced from Bulo Hawo, were being relocated from the Moi Stadium in Mandera to a temporary camp in Garbakoley, also in Mandera.
"The relocation is almost complete," the aid worker said.