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Dozens die in fighting between AU forces and Islamist rebels

Latest update : 2009-02-28

Nearly 50 civilians have died in two days of fighting in Mogadishu, as well as in the south central town of Hudur. This comes just days after new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed returned to Mogadishu to set up his new unity government.

AFP -  Hardline Somali Islamists seized a town Wednesday and renewed attacks in the capital Mogadishu, ramping up an onslaught against newly-elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and his allies.

At least 17 people, mainly fighters, were killed in clashes when the Shebab group attacked the northwestern town of Hodur and wrested it from the control of pro-government forces, witnesses said.

A second day of clashes between government forces and another Islamist militia in the capital Mogadishu also left seven civilians dead.

Elders and witnesses in Hodur, a small town near the Ethiopian border, said the fighting was fierce and confirmed that the Shebab fighters had captured the town.

"Many people died in the fighting. We counted about fourteen who were killed outside the town and three inside. People are reporting there could be more bodies on the outskirts of the town," local elder Adan Nur Muktar said.

A medic at Hodur hospital said the death toll from Wednesday morning's fighting was expected to top 20.

"We killed about 20 of them and destroyed two armed vehicles," regional Shebab commander Sheikh Hasan Derow told AFP.

Somalia's top Shebab commander Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said Hodur, some 300 kilometres (185 miles) northwest of the capital, was now under his group's control.

"The mujahedeen (fighters) took control of Hodur and the situation in the town is calm," Robow told AFP.

The Shebab, a former military youth wing of an Islamist movement ousted by Ethiopia-backed Somali forces two years ago, had carried out relentless attacks against the Ethiopian forces who withdrew from Somalia last month.

In recent months, the Shebab have also launched operations against rival Somali factions and conquered large swathes of territory, leaving government forces in control of little more than a handful of blocks in Mogadishu.

Fighting also resumed in Mogadishu between an Islamist militia and government forces backed by African Union troops, a day after some of the bloodiest clashes since the president's January 31 election.

A total of seven civilians were killed by artillery shells that hit houses, witnesses said. Three more people were killed in northern Mogadishu, raising an earlier toll of four.

"I was giving lessons to the students when a mortar shell struck the school, killing a child and wounding four others," said Mohamed Adan Yusuf.

The clashes were less intense by late afternoon, but sporadic fire could still be heard, an AFP correspondent reported.

At least 23 people were killed and more than 90 wounded in clashes in the violence-wracked Somali capital Tuesday.

Fighters loyal to Hizb al-Islamiya (Islamic Party) claimed responsibility for the clashes, which erupted after they attacked government forces south of Mogadishu.

Hizb al-Islamiya and the radical Islamist Shebab fighters have intensified their battles against the government of Sheikh Sharif, a moderate Islamist elected president under United Nations-brokered reconciliation talks.

Islamist forces opposed to the UN-sponsored reconciliation bids in Somalia have launched several deadly attacks against the government and African Union forces in recent days.

The attacks were seen as a warning to the troubled country's new president,  himself a former Islamist rebel leader who has vowed to stabilise Somalia.

The Shebab also claimed responsibility for a suspected suicide attack against AU troops in Mogadishu that killed 11 Burundian peacekeepers on Sunday.

Last month, they took control of the south-central Baidoa town which hosted the transitional federal parliament after Ethiopian troops withdrew.

Date created : 2009-02-25