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Somali  civilians who had left the town of Bulomarer when it was held by al-Shabab militants, return following the town's capture by African Union and Somali government soldiers, in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia.

Tobin Jones/AP Photo

An African military force in Somalia, which has received more than $20-million in funds from Canada, has been hit by allegations that its soldiers raped and abused vulnerable Somali women and girls.

The allegations, by Human Rights Watch, are based on interviews with 21 women and girls in Mogadishu, some as young as 12, who said they were raped or sexually exploited by Ugandan and Burundian personnel in the African Union military force.

Canada is one of several foreign donors that have supported the African troops in Somalia, seeing the troops as crucial weapons in the battle against al-Shabab, the Islamist radical militia that controls much of Somalia. Since 2011, the Canadian government has given nearly $21-million to the African Union force.

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The troops, with a mandate from the United Nations, have pushed back the Shabab fighters from the capital, Mogadishu, and several other towns and cities. Canada has justified its financial support as an anti-terrorism measure, especially after the deadly terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year.

Al-Shabab's hardline leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a U.S. air strike last week. The militia this weekend named its new leader as Ahmad Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidh, a little-known lieutenant of Mr. Godane who shares his allegiance to al-Qaeda's terrorist tactics. The new leader is said to be a former Koranic teacher, about 44 years old.

Some analysts had predicted that al-Shabab might fragment after Mr. Godane's death, but so far the militia are pledging to support the new leader. They vowed to seek vengeance against the United States for the assassination of their leader.

Somalia has put its army on high alert for possible revenge attacks. A police officer said Sunday that mortar shells struck a residential neighbourhood in Mogadishu, wounding five people. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a 71-page report released on Monday, Human Rights Watch documented how some African Union soldiers have raped or sexually assaulted Somali women or girls who were seeking medical assistance or water at AU military bases. The troops have also used humanitarian aid to coerce vulnerable women and girls into sexual activity, the report said.

The sexual abuse is widely known to military officials, since the women and girls entered the AU bases through officially guarded gates, and some were even given official military badges to make it easier for them to enter, the report said. Senior officials in the military force seem to tolerate or even organize the abuse, it said.

Foreign donors who support the AU military force should ensure that there is greater supervision of the conduct of the soldiers, and they should halt their financial support if the abuse continues, Human Rights Watch said.

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The sexual abuse victims are usually homeless women and girls who sought shelter in Mogadishu and became dependent on outside assistance after being forced to flee their homes in southern or central Somalia, the independent human-rights group said. They are "forced into exploitative and abusive situations to sustain themselves and their children," the group said.

In one case in late 2013, it said, a 15-year-old girl went to the base of the Burundian soldiers in Mogadishu to ask for medicine for her sick mother. She was told to follow two Burundian soldiers to get medicine.

They took her to a remote area, raped her and gave her $10 as she left, the report said.

Human Rights Watch said it documented 10 separate cases of rape or sexual assault by African Union soldiers in Mogadishu in 2013 and 2014. In several cases, the victims were given money or food "in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex, or to discourage them from filing a complaint," the group said.

One rape victim told the researchers: "I was scared he would come back and rape me again or kill me. I want the government to recognize the power these men have over us."

In other cases, rather than raping the women, the soldiers exploited their desperate poverty and hunger, demanding sex in exchange for a few dollars, the report said.

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"I was worried, I wanted to run," one 19-year-old woman told the researchers, describing how she was paid for a sexual encounter with a Ugandan soldier. It was only her hunger that forced her to stay, she said.

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