More than 20 civilians killed in fierce Mogadishu battles

MOGADISHU: More than 20 civilians were killed today in a second day of intense fighting between Somali government troops and insurgent forces in the capital Mogadishu, a medical source said.

The government troops backed by African Union peacekeepers raided a position held by the insurgents in the north of the war-riven capital, sparking the

heavy firefight.

“The civilian casualty (toll) is very high today. We counted more than 20 civilians who were killed this morning alone,” head of Mogadishu ambulance services Ali Muse told AFP.

“The medical staff collected around 83 civilians who were injured in the crossfire and the mortars and artillery shells.”

Somali government security official Mohamed Nur said their forces overran the rebels’ base in the same neighbourhood as the Al Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters attacked them on Wednesday.

At least 23 civilians

were killed in Wednesday’s clashes.

“We have taken control of the position of the terrorists where they used to arrange their attacks. Our forces, getting assistance from the African peacekeepers, are now gaining military momentum in northern Mogadishu,” Nur said.

“The enemy completely emptied their positions here in northern Mogadishu after being forced to retreat. Three of our soldiers are injured so far,” Nur added.

The government forces have been planning a wide offensive to dislodge the insurgents from Mogadishu, where the rebels have confined the Western-backed government of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to just a handful of zones.

Residents reported seeing AU tanks moving into their neighbourhood.

“Two military tanks and six other armoured vehicles belonging to the African Union forces were at the frontline... and one of their bulldozers was filling the trenches dug by the insurgents in the street,” said Said Yusuf, a witness.

The AU-backed government forces and the Shebab fighters have been locked in a tense stand-off since the government announced plans in January to dislodge the radical Islamists from Mogadishu.

In January, Mogadishu residents started fleeing ahead of the planned government offensive but the assault never came and some civilians have started returning to the war-battered capital.

Since taking control of much of Mogadishu after bloody clashes last year, the hardline rebels have repeatedly carried out deadly attacks against the peacekeepers and the government troops.

Civilians have borne the worst brunt of the relentless fighting, many of them caught in crossfire or killed by mortar shells fired in retaliation to attacks by the insurgents who operate in residential areas.

The Shebab, who control 80 percent of south and central Somalia, vowed to topple the internationally-backed government, which owes its survival to the African Union forces.

Somalia has been wracked by two decades of bloody violence sparked by the ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre.