By Harun Maruf/VOA
An Ethiopian anti-aircraft missile brought down the Kenyan plane that crashed in the Somali town of Bardale last week, killing six people on board, multiple sources have told VOA Somali.
Ethiopian forces are stationed in Bardale to help their Somali counterparts retain control of the town, once controlled by militant group al-Shabab.
The May 4 incident began with the incoming Kenyan plane aborting a landing attempt because an Ethiopian military vehicle mounted with Zu anti-aircraft missiles was on the runway, officials say.
The plane then flew over the military vehicle to make a second attempt to land. The Ethiopian soldier operating the Zu fired several rounds, hitting the plane, according to witnesses and Somali officials.
Weydow Ali Hassan is the town’s head of social affairs. Hassan was one of the officials waiting at the airstrip to receive medical supplies the plane was carrying.
“There was a technical vehicle mounted with a gun on where the plane was going to land. We thought it was going to collide into it,” Hassan said.
After the missiles were fired, the plane burst into flames and crashed on the side of the airstrip, according to Hassan.
His account was confirmed by a regional minister and an aviation official who both asked not to be identified for security reasons.
A fourth official who was not in Bardale said a donkey on the runway forced the plane to abort the landing and not the Ethiopian military vehicle. Hassan disputed that account.
“There was no donkey present there,” he said. “There were Ethiopian soldiers and their vehicles.”
Ethiopian military officials acknowledged their soldiers shot down the plane but say their military didn’t know the aircraft was due to arrive. They also say the soldiers feared the plane might “bomb” them.
Bardale, a small town about 60 kilometers west of Baidoa, lacks an air traffic control tower. Flight arrivals are conveyed by telephone to Somali officials on the ground.
“They were scared; it created fear,” says a source close to the Ethiopian soldiers. The soldier who fired the missile has been in Bardale “about 20 days,” according to the official.
A team of investigators from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia has begun an investigation.
The team will visit the site of the crash near the Bardale airstrip. Their first task is to recover the black box and voice recorder of the E120 aircraft, owned by Kenyan company African Express Airways. The recorders were located the day after the crash, but officials chose not to retrieve them until experts arrived. The area has been sealed off since, according to an official.
Somalia suspended both international and local flights due to the coronavirus epidemic but the aircraft, charted by an NGO, had a one-day special permit to deliver the medical supplies to Bardale.
Another contentious issue is the status of the soldier who fired on the plane. Multiple sources including an AMISOM source say they were told the person is a “non-AMISOM” soldier.
Non-AMISOM soldiers are Ethiopians who operate outside the mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia. Ethiopia has nearly 4,000 soldiers serving as part of the AU mission, but non-AMISOM forces are larger. According to a reliable official, 75% of Ethiopian troops in Somalia are non-AMISOM soldiers.
Somali and Ethiopian officials both say non-AMISOM soldiers operate under a “bilateral agreement.” The Somali opposition is questioning the legality of the presence of non-AMISOM Ethiopian forces in the country.
The Somali government said it will await the results of the investigation being conducted.
“All the evidence is there [in Bardale]; we prepared ourselves, we saw the witnesses,” says Somali Transport and Aviation Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Salat, who visited the scene last week. “We are waiting experts from Kenya and Ethiopia to join us so that we can do a transparent investigation in order to share with the families of those lost and the company on what happened, how it happened and how to prevent similar incidents.”