AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
MOGADISHU: Clashes pitting Somali government forces and their African Union allies against Islamist rebels for control of Mogadishu's main market left at least 17 civilians dead on Thursday, officials said.
Many of the victims died when stray artillery fire hit a bus station.
"At least seventeen civilian dead have been counted so far and nine of them were killed after artillery fire struck a bus station near Arafat hospital," Ali Muse, head of the Mogadishu ambulance service, told AFP.
"Another 46 civilians were injured and the death toll could rise," he said. Tension has been building around Bakara market, long a stronghold of Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels, for the past 10 days and the vast majority of traders moved their wares out several days ago.
The Shebab had been digging in in trenches inside the market, while government forces and their African Union (AU) backers had taken up positions around it.
Somali government officials confirmed the fighting and claimed they were advancing onto new positions previously held by the Shebab.
"We have beaten the enemy back and our forces are now advancing onto new positions very close to their last stronghold in Bakara" Somali deputy chief of staff Lieutenant-Colonel Yusuf Dhegobadan, told reporters at the frontline.
"The fighting started last night and is still continuing sporadically around some positions.
"We took control of some key positions this morning ... and penetrated deep into their big trenches," he added.
The attempt to rout the Shebab from Bakara is part of a broader sweep, initiated in February, to regain ground in Mogadishu.
The new push has enabled the transitional government and its AU backers, at one point reduced to controlling just a few blocks in Mogadishu, to reclaim around half the capital.
The recent military gains prompted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has deployed several thousand troops to Mogadishu in the AU AMISOM force, to call for a one-year mandate extension for Somalia's transitional federal institutions.
"It seems to us that the win-win situation for all parties seems to be an extension of the TFI for a period not exceeding one year," Museveni told the members of the UN-backed International Contact Group for Somalia at the start of a two-day meeting in Kampala.
He said the alternative to an extension -- the holding of elections -- would "give the extremists time to reorganise and ... undermine the battlefield gains so far obtained."
Witnesses confirmed the civilian casualties, saying that some of those killed were struck by stray bullets that reached far beyond the contested areas.
"Heavy artillery fire was striking neighborhoods far away from the zone of the fighting," witness Mohamud Adan told AFP.
AMISON Chief of Staff Colonel Innocent Oula said the government forces and their AMISOM allies were trying to avoid any clashes within the actual market, which is the Somali capital's main commercial hub.
"While our joint forces are indeed close to the market, we have left a clear route open to the extremists to withdraw. We urge them to take advantage of this and spare the Somali people any more suffering," he said.
"If they refuse to leave, however, we will be left with no option other than to force them out," he said adding that "any plans to do so will be undertaken with the greatest care to ensure minimal harm and damage to lives and property."