More civilian deaths as govt forces battle Islamists for capital
Somali government forces and African Union troops attacked Islamist militant positions in Mogadishu on Thursday. The exchange of fire left more than 20 civilians dead as the government tries to retake full control of the capital.
AFP - Somali government forces backed by African Union troops raided Islamist rebel positions in Mogadishu Thursday, sparking a heavy fire exchange which killed more than 20 civilians and injured scores.
The attack, in a northern Mogadishu district, came a day after the government forces were ambushed by the rebels in the same area, resulting in the death of at least 23 civilians.
The two sides have been locked in a tense stand-off since the embattled Western-backed government in January announced plans for a wide offensive to wrest control of Mogadishu from the Islamist Shebab rebels.
AU forces drove tanks and armoured vehicles to the rebels' positions, forcing them to retreat, witnesses and officials said.
"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."
The few residents remaining in the neighbourhood after hundreds fled following the announcement of the planned offensive, bundled together their belongings and left the battle zone, an AFP correspondent reported.
Tanks rained gunfire onto the rebels' post, littering the streets with spent catridges and shrapnel and shattered buildings, leaving them with bullet holes, in a scene resembling the aftermath of an earthquake, the correspondent added.
"We have taken control of the position where the terrorists used to arrange their attacks," said Mohamed Nur, a Somali government security official.
"Our forces, getting assistance from the African peacekeepers, are now gaining military momentum in northern Mogadishu.
"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.
Two AU tanks and six other armoured vehicles were followed by an army of Somali government troops. A bulldozer was seen filling trenches dug across the streets by the insurgents.
Several other witnesses also said more than 20 civilians were killed.
"A mother and her three children were among the dead in Jamhuriya neighborhood. An artillery shell struck their house," a local resident Said Yusuf told AFP.
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 live in residential areas.
The Al Qaeda-linked 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 toppling of president Mohamed Siad Barre.