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"New York Times" correspondent facing arrest over child soldier interviews flees Somalia

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 2 July 2010 - A Somali correspondent for the New York Times, Mohammed Ibrahim, told IPI by phone on Thursday that he had fled the country following death threats and attempted arrest by government security forces.

On 15 June, the New York Times ran an article headlined "Children Carry Guns for a U.S. Ally, Somalia," under the byline of the newspaper's East Africa bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman. The piece included information from interviews conducted by Mohammed Ibrahim with child soldiers.

The Somali government has since denied that its army employs child soldiers.

In a later New York Times article, foreign backers of Somalia expressed concern over the allegations.

In response, the Somali government began hunting down anyone involved in the child soldier piece, said Omar Faruk Osman, who heads the National Union of Somali Journalists - for which Ibrahim also works.

Members of the Somali security services began contacting Ibrahim shortly after the story ran, he told IPI. He received an email from the director of communications at Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, asking him to appear for a meeting with security chiefs. The communications director assured Ibrahim that he would not be harmed.

"It was like a trick," Ibrahim said. He never showed up.

On 24 June, the government held a press conference during which it again denied that it used child soldiers, Ibrahim told IPI. According to Ibrahim, the government had detained the child soldiers interviewed for the piece, and forced them to recant their story.

On the same day, security officers attempted to arrest Ibrahim while he was eating lunch in a restaurant. According to Ibrahim, he was set up by an acquaintance from the government-run Radio Mogadishu who has ties to Somali intelligence. Thanks to a tip from another source, he was able to leave the restaurant before security personnel arrived. Ibrahim reportedly later spoke to witnesses who said that over twenty police officers arrived to arrest him, some of whom were spotted with Ibrahim's name written on their palms.

On 26 June, Ibrahim said, he spotted police officers looking for him in the Trebiano area of Mogadishu, where he had gone to purchase a plane ticket.

"The guys were the same guys who attacked me at the restaurant on 24 June . . . and I immediately noticed that they were in search of me and left the area immediately," Ibrahim said in an emailed statement. He left the area immediately. Ibrahim said he realized then that he could not leave the country through the airport, which is controlled by the Somali government.

Ibrahim travelled by bus for three days to reach Nairobi. Now he is afraid that he will not be able to return, for fear of reprisals by security officers, including arrest and brutal interrogation.

"It was horrible," he said. "They are angry and these security forces might kill you."

Others involved in reporting the story were also threatened, according to New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman. "Somalia's transitional government was outraged by our story on its use of child soldiers and has threatened all the local people who helped us report it, including Mohammed, another translator, and even the owner and staff of the hotel where we stayed when we reported that story," he wrote in an email to IPI.

"I tried to tell government officials Mohammed had done nothing wrong and that there was a large body of evidence about this issue - the UN recently issued a report listing the Somali government as one of the most flagrant users of child soldiers in the world," Gettleman wrote.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: "The International Press Institute is gravely concerned at the allegations that Somali government security services threatened, and were seeking to arrest, Mohammed Ibrahim because they were angered by the interviews he conducted with alleged child soldiers in the Somali army. We urge the Somali government to respect the right of journalists to report on anything that is in the public interest, without fear of arrest and physical harm."

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed has announced the launch of an investigation into the possible existence of underage soldiers in the Somali army, other officials continue to deny the allegations. Government spokesperson Abdi Kadir Walayo contended that the story was fabricated, in an interview with Voice of America, published on 29 June.

The Somali government, currently locked in a violent conflict with Islamist insurgent groups in southern and central Somalia, is backed by the United Nations and is an ally of the United States in its war against terrorism.

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