The head of the US Africa Command on Thursday ordered a new investigation of claims that US troops massacred 10 civilians in an August raid on a farm in central Somalia.
The move by Africom Commander Gen Thomas Waldhauser follows media reports that children were among those killed in an attack based on faulty intelligence.
“Gen Waldhauser referred the matter to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to ensure a full exploration of the facts given the gravity of the allegations," Africom said in a statement.
It added that “Africom takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and will leverage the expertise of appropriate organisations to ensure such allegations are fully and impartially investigated.”
Africom had said soon after the August 25 raid that all the dead were “armed enemy combatants.”
A pair of recent reports in the Daily Beast, a New York-based online news site, cited accounts by eyewitnesses and Somali officials of unprovoked killings of farmers in the US raid carried out in conjunction with Somali soldiers.
“These local farmers were attacked by foreign troops while looking after their crops,” Ali Nur Mohamed, deputy governor of the Lower Shabelle region where the attack occurred, had earlier told reporters in Mogadishu.
“The troops could have arrested them because they were unarmed but instead shot them one by one mercilessly,” Mr Mohamed added as 10 corpses were displayed in the Somali capital soon after the raid.
Africom's acknowledgment that further investigation is warranted comes at a time of growing and shifting US involvement in the war against Al-Shabaab.
Defence Department officials have presented President Trump with a plan for less restrictive US military operations in Somalia during the next two years, the New York Times reported on December 10.
The proposed initiative would give greater discretion to US field commanders in launching strikes and rescind the State Department's ability to pause offensive military operations in response to perceived problems, the Times said.
US forces have carried out about 30 airstrikes so far this year in Somalia — twice as many as in 2016. More than 500 US soldiers have also been dispatched to Somalia to assist in the fight against Shabaab.
Conversely, Washington is simultaneously suspending food and fuel payments to most units of the Somalia National Army (SNA) due to concerns over rampant corruption, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Only those SNA units mentored by US instructors will continue to receive the stipends, the report said.
“Documents sent from the US Mission to Somalia to the Somali government show US officials are increasingly frustrated that the military is unable to account for its aid,” Reuters said.
“The documents paint a stark picture of a military hollowed out by corruption, unable to feed, pay or arm its soldiers — despite hundreds of millions of dollars of support.”
A team of US and Somali officials who visited nine SNA bases earlier this year reported that expected consignments of food aid could not be found, Reuters revealed. The best-staffed base visited by the team had 160 SNA soldiers present out of a total officially listed at 550. Only 60 of the soldiers had weapons, Reuters said.
“The SNA is a fragile force with extremely weak command and control,” said an earlier leaked assessment by the African Union, United Nations and Somali government. “They are incapable of conducting effective operations or sustaining themselves.”
Kenyan forces have also been cited for allegedly failing to carry out assigned duties in Somalia.
A report last month by UN monitors charged that Kenyan troops operating under African Union command have failed to assist authorities in blocking illicit charcoal exports that are said to earn al-Shabaab at least $10 million a year.