Desperate to earn money for their impoverished families, some Somali refugees have turned to fighting alongside the militants and tribal supporters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as they battle government forces in south Yemen, a tribal fighter has told GlobalPost.
“We buried a couple of Somalis over the last week. We can tell they were Somalis by their facial features. There are not many, but, there are some fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Abyan,” said Mohammed Abu Mansoor, a tribesman, who has been fighting for the government against AQAP-affiliated militants trying to gain control over the southern Abyan province.
While Yemen offer precious little for its 170,000 mainly Somali refugees, an increasing number of Somalis are making the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden fleeing the war and drought, which are devastating their homeland.
Rumours of Somalis fighting for the highest bidder have been stubborn in Yemen. During the six-year war between government troops and the Houthi rebels in north Yemen, Somalis were reported in local media as having fought alongside the Houthis.
Sheikh Ali Mohammed Raage, spokesman for al-Shabab, the extremist al-Qaeda-linked Islamic group in Somalia, said al-Shabab has been sending forces to Yemen and receiving fighters in return because of its close links with the country.
However, this is disputed by Abu Mansoor, the pro-government tribal fighter. “We don’t believe that the Somalis fighting are al-Shabab fighters. We think they are normal people, who are trying to help their family earn a better living and are getting paid to fight,” he said.
“The extremists have funds and that is why we think the Somalis were paid to fight against the Yemeni government.”
Recently the UN refugee agency UNHCR slammed Yemeni opposition media for reports alleging that Yemen’s government is recruiting Somali refugees as mercenaries to help put down the growing protest movement, which started in January, along the lines of what Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi did.
The UNHCR said it investigated the claims and found not even "a single anecdotal case" of government recruitment among the large Somali refugee population in Yemen.
“We are concerned about this situation and are still following up, as this has serious implications for the protection of refugees in the short and long term,” Hala al-Horany, UNHCR protection officer in the southern city of Aden, told the UN’s humanitarian news agency IRIN.
“We have also conducted awareness-raising in the communities and warned them against even participating in demonstrations, let alone mercenary activity.”