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BMJ. Feb 9, 2008; 336(7639): 299.
PMCID: PMC2234514

Killings prompt charity to withdraw from Somalia

The “unprecedented and shocking” killings of three aid workers from Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Somalia on 28 January has left humanitarian organisations “baffled and concerned” and led to an exodus of aid workers, including all the agency’s international staff.

Those killed were a Kenyan surgeon, Victor Okumu, 51, French logistician Damien Lehalle, 27, and their local driver, Mohamed Abdi Ali, 28. They all worked for the recently established Kismayo emergency surgical project. Dr Okumu and Mr Lehalle had been there for less than a month.

An initial assessment by UN security personnel said that the men were killed “by a remote controlled landmine explosion in a car they were travelling only a short distance from the hospital.”

The use of such a device indicates that they were deliberately targeted rather than the accidental victims of abandoned ordnance.

A fourth person, Hassankaafi Hared Ahmed, a passing journalist, was also killed by shrapnel, while four passers by were reportedly injured in the blast.

The agency’s international president, Christophe Fournier, said that his organisation was “outraged by what appears to be an organised attack.” It was “absolutely intolerable and a serious violation of the humanitarian action to which our late colleagues were so committed.”

Dr Fournier warned that the attack would have a direct effect on assistance to the Somali population. “Although lifesaving medical activities continue under the supervision of our dedicated Somali colleagues, the suspension [of MSF activities] will clearly hamper the essential medical work of MSF in Somalia.”

The agency has worked continuously in Somalia for more than 16 years. It had some 90 international staff and more than 800 Somali staff working in the country. In 2007 its medical teams performed more than 1500 surgical operations and 520 000 outpatient consultations and admitted around 23 000 patients to hospital.

It warns that the country is facing a “critical emergency, with escalating violence, massive displacement, and acute unmet medical needs.” Death rates are “far beyond emergency thresholds.” The hundreds of thousands of Somalis struggling to survive are “the indirect victims of such attacks on humanitarian workers.”

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Eric Laroche, said, “We are all aware of the violent and risky environment that exists in Somalia. Brave souls such as our departed colleagues . . . confront those risks on a daily basis to uphold the humanitarian principles, to serve and protect those in need.

“The duties the aid workers carried out with such commitment—supporting humanitarian assistance, delivering medical care, providing a voice for the Somali story—were to better the lives of all Somali citizens in the hope that one day their country would become a land of peace and security.”


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