Canada rocked by Somalia scandal: 'Cover-up' claim after peace-keepers are accused of beating unarmed civilian to death

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THE death of a civilian being held in custody by Canadian peace-keepers in Somalia has led to political casualties in Canada, including substantial damage to the reputation of the Defence Minister, Kim Campbell, a leading candidate to replace Brian Mulroney, the Prime Minister.

Charges of torture and second- degree murder laid last week against four paratroops from the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment have sent shock waves through the country, seriously damaging Canada's cherished reputation as a main contributor to United Nations peace-keeping efforts in the past 40 years. There have also been allegations that top army officers and even Ms Campbell were involved in a cover-up. Ms Campbell's star has been fading, though the fuss over the Somali incident is only one of the factors in her decline in popularity.

The charges are unprecedented. This is the first time any Canadian soldier has ever faced torture or murder charges resulting from UN operations. Shidane Abukar Arone, a Somali civilian, was found dead in a detention cell in the Canadian compound at Belet Huen in western Somalia. The subsequent investigation has been broadened to include the deaths of three other Somali civilians from Canadian fire and a sweeping look into the ethos, training and composition of the Airborne Regiment, which makes up about half of the 1,200-soldier Canadian contingent in Somalia.

Ms Campbell is being criticised for failing to inform parliament about the death, until after news of the beating leaked out, even though the Defence Minister was apparently informed about the incident the day after it happened.

She is also being criticised for failing to react quickly enough to the broader problems with the Canadian contingent and of neglecting her re sponsibilities as Defence Minister while she travels across the country campaigning for the leadership of the Conservative Party. For her part, Ms Campbell claims there was no deliberate attempt to withhold information and she has criticised her officials for failing to make the incidents public. She has also said she took steps to insure a proper investigation would be carried out as soon as she learned of the trouble.

Arone, the Somali civilian, was arrested by soldiers on 16 March as he tried to enter the Canadian compound at Belet Huen and was found dead a few hours later. Defence Department officials said he was beaten to death. Two days later, the four soldiers were arrested and shipped back to Canada in custody, but not before the most senior of them, Master Corporal Clayton Matchee, apparently tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. He is still in serious condition in a military hospital in Ottawa.

More fuel was added to the controversy when it was revealed that some members of the Airborne had been associated with extreme right-wing groups in Canada. One member was photographed in a Winnipeg barracks wearing a Hitler T-shirt while giving a Nazi-type salute in front of a swastika. (He is currently serving in Somalia but has not been associated with any of the incidents.)