20 dead in pitched battle in Somali capital

MOGADISHU: Islamic insurgents fired mortars at Somalia’s airport as the president was boarding a plane today, sparking battles that killed at least

20 people as return fire slammed into residential areas and a market,

officials said.

The president was unhurt and his plane took off safely, police said.

Somalia’s capital sees near-daily bloodshed as a powerful insurgent group with links to al-Qaida tries to overthrow the fragile UN-backed government and push out some 5,000 African Union peacekeepers. Both sides of the conflict have been accused of indiscriminate shelling.

“We have seen at least 20 dead bodies lying in the streets, most of them civilians,” said Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu’s ambulance service. He said about 60 people were wounded as mortars slammed into residential areas.

Today’s shelling started soon after insurgents fired toward President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed’s plane, said police spokesman Abdullahi Hassan Barise. “The mortars hit the perimeter of the airport,” he said. “The plane carrying the president took off safely.” Thursday’s violence — deadlier than many of the battles in this once-beautiful seaside city — followed a pattern that witnesses say is becoming all too common. First, insurgents fire at government or AU targets. Then government and

AU forces respond by shelling insurgent bases, most of which are in residential areas.

The result is that civilians bear the brunt of the bloodshed in Somalia’s seemingly endless war, which has killed thousands of people and maimed countless others. “What cannot be denied is that most of the fire comes from the bases of the African Union, and they hit and kill civilians in the rebel-controlled areas,” said Ahmed Abdulahi, a businessman in Mogadishu. “People have eyes and ears, they know what is going on,” he said.

African Union peacekeeping force spokesman Barigye Bahoku said

insurgents are shelling

the residential areas they control to make it appear the AU is responsible.