Ethiopian forces in Somalia have admitted to shooting down a Kenyan cargo plane on Monday, leading to six deaths, on ‘mistaken identity’.
A preliminary report filed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) indicated that the forces guarding Bardelle airstrip in Baidoa adjudged the plane’s unusual flight towards the facility as a potential suicide mission.
But the revelations that that the troops on guard at the facility were non-Amisom members of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) could raise legal questions on their presence in Somalia.
A report filed by the Sector III Force Commander of the African Union Mission in Somalia said the troops at Bardelle, some 300km northwest of Mogadishu were unaware of any incoming civilian flight at the time.
“There was no information that the aircraft would be at Bardelle… the aircraft was flying out of usual site repeatedly closer to the ground,” Ethiopian forces said.
“The troops suspected that the aircraft was a suicide attacker and seeking a target to attack. Due to the above reason, the African Express Type E-120 was shot down by our force.”
The original count was that the cargo plane operated by Kenyan company, African Express, was carrying six people when it came down. The Ethiopians say three Kenyans and two Somalis bodies were recovered.
The aircraft, 5Y-AXO, had actually been permitted by the Somali Civil Aviation Authority to fly from Mogadishu to Baidoa and back, a 600km round trip. Ethiopian forces claim they had no communication.
A report by the Amisom headquarters says it approached the airstrip in the unusual West-East movement, as opposed to the usual East-West when landing.
“Because of lack of communication and awareness, the aircraft was shot down and thre Kenyan and two Somali citizens died in the incident,” Amisom headquarters in Mogadishu said.
But while the rare admission could help remove suspicions, the presence of Ethiopian forces who are not part of the Amisom could raise new questions. Ethiopia, which has provided some 4,395 troops, usually man Sector III of the Mission.
“The incident was performed by non-Amisom troops of Ethiopia, which will require mutual collaborative investigation team from Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya to further understand the truth,” said a preliminary report forwarded to Amisom boss and Mozambican diplomat Francisco Madeira on May 5.
The incident has touched off a political spark in Somalia especially among leaders opposed to Ethiopia’s ventures.
“Mr President, now we fully understand the details of the unholy alliance between you and Abiy Ahmed, which you have been concealing from the Parliament and the Somali public,” said Ilyas Ali Hassan, a Somali Senator who is also the Foreign Secretary of the Himilo Qaran party.
“Parliament and the Somali people should take decisive actions to protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the Somali blood shed in bardelle.”
Idd Bedel Mohamed, a former Somali diplomat who has indicated he will contest for Presidential elections, says the Somali government and Amisom must clarify who authorised the deployment of the non-Amisom troops and what their mandate is.
“It takes courage and leadership to confess, and both commanders showed professionalism,” he said.
“For Ethiopian leaders, their country’s credibility is at stake. Ethiopia should ask President Farmaajo to address the public, parliament and international partners on the issue of non-Amisom troops in the country,” he added.
The presence of Ethiopian troops had always been contentious. Long before Amisom were deployed in 2007, Ethiopian forces had ventured into Somalia ostensibly to fight the Union of Islamic Courts, the precursor to Al-Shabaab.
When the crash happened on Monday, Somalia’s President Mohamed Farmaajo told his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta the matter will be fully investigated, in cooperation with Kenyan authorities.
It was the first call to cooperation on a major incident between them in almost a year that has seen relations turn lukewarm over a maritime boundary dispute.
The airstrip is also a military base for Ethiopian troops participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
Addis Ababa on Tuesday labeled the incident as a “accident” but said it will leave the matter to the “competent authorities” in Somalia to investigate.
Officials in Nairobi worry that the lack of clarity surrounding the accident could deter further humanitarian delivery to the country whose road network is either too poor or littered with Al-Shabaab roadblocks in areas the militants control.
Kenya’s Foreign Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo, in a preliminary statement, had asked Somalia and Amisom to “thoroughly and swiftly investigate the matter because it impacts humanitarian operations at a time of highest need.”