AFP - At least 26 people have been killed by fresh fighting in Mogadishu, half of them when a mortar shell hit a mosque as worshippers left after evening prayers.
Mogadishu's top police commander and five children were among 13 people killed earlier. The mosque carnage then made Wednesday one of the worst days in weeks of clashes between the Somali government and Islamist insurgents.
"It was the most terrible incident I have ever witnessed, 13 people have died," witness Dadir Ali Jes said after the explosion at the mosque. Government security officer Adan Weheliye described it as a "tragedy".
The five children killed earlier were also killed by a single mortar shell. The death toll in Mogadishu has climbed well above the 250 mark in just over a month.
Colonel Ali Said Hassan, Mogadishu's police chief, was killed during the fierce fighting that broke out early in the day when government fighters attacked rebel strongholds in the capital's southern Hodan district.
Hassan, one of Somalia's most respected police officers, was hit by sniper fire from the rooftop of a nearby building, witnesses said.
"The commander of Mogadishu police died in the line of duty," said a senior police official, who asked not to be named. "He was a brave officer who has expended tremendous effort to bring peace. He was killed by terrorists."
The pre-dawn combat erupted when government forces attacked positions controlled by Islamist insurgents. Shelling continued into the evening as rebel-held areas of the capital were heavily pounded, an AFP reporter said.
Other police sources said three other members of the force had been killed in the fighting. Witnesses said nine civilians, five of them children, had died from mortar fire in a nearby neighbourhood.
An AFP reporter saw the bodies of the children -- aged between nine and 14 years -- lying in pools of blood under a balcony where they had sought shelter from the shelling.
"The five children were trying to hide when a mortar shell landed at the same place they were hiding, unfortunately they all died on the spot," said Habibo Adan, a resident very close to the area.
An ambulance driver said at least 50 people had also been wounded in the renewed violence. "They include children and women and some of them have serious injuries," said the driver, Sheikh Mohammed Ali.
Islamist insurgent groups launched a major offensive against the wobbly administration of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on May 7.
More than 122,000 people have since been displaced, bringing the total number of war refugees in the country to 1.3 million, according to UN figures.
The volatility of the situation in Somalia means the internally displaced are desperately lacking basics including shelter, water and food.
"Their dire situation is further exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian agencies' presence," said UN children's fund UNICEF, whose largest operation hub in central Jowhar was over-run and looted by militias a month ago.
"UNICEF is gravely disturbed by the new wave of aggression and hostilities against humanitarian aid work in Somalia which is putting lives of Somali children and women at great risk," Hannan Sulieman, the acting head of the agency in Somalia, said in a statement Wednesday.
Somalia has been gripped by civil wars and insurgencies and bereft of stable government since the overthrow of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.