Mogadishu residents flee worst fighting in months

Thousands have fled the embattled Somali capital of Mogadishu as fighting between pro-government forces and hard-line militants over the past week killed more than 100 people, according to the UN refugee agency.


AFP - Residents fled Mogadishu on Friday as pro-government forces scrambled to contain an insurgent onslaught that has left more than 100 dead over the past week.

The embattled government, entrenched in an ever-shrinking tract of the city, appointed a new army chief late Thursday after failing to repel the offensive that heightened international concerns over the lawless nation.

The fighting has "so far claimed the lives of more than 135 people," the UN's refugee agency said in a statement, adding that it had counted 315 wounded and 30,000 displaced.

"Hospitals in central Mogadishu are reported to be overwhelmed by the large number of casualties in need of urgent medical attention," the UNHCR statement said.

Earlier Friday, Somali Information Minister Farhan Ali Mohamoud spoke of at least 103 killed and 18,000 displaced.

Yusuf Osman Dhumal was named the new military chief. "He will command the military operations in the capital," Mohamoud also told reporters.

The strife-torn seaside capital woke up to an uneasy calm as the Islamist insurgents maintained positions in trenches along streets near the presidential palace.

War-weary civilians carrying belongings on their heads or strapped to their backs fled some parts of the capital.

"The situation is calm this morning, we have not heard any gunshot so far, but we are not sure how long it will last," resident Mohamed Moalim Dahir said.

The UN's top envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah appealed for urgent humanitarian aid for the displaced civilians "many of whom only recently returned home hoping to restart their lives".

"I would urge concerned governments to move quickly to provide direct bilateral assistance to the Somali government," he said.

"Civilians need basic assistance such as clean water, medicine, blankets and shelter and they need it now."

President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed holed up in the presidential compound under the protection of a 4,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM).

International donors last month pledged more than 200 million dollars to help bolster security institutions and the struggling African peacekeeping mission.

The rebel forces consisting mainly of the Shebab, a radical group whose leaders are suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, and Hezb al-Islamiya, another armed organisation loyal to hardline opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys Aweys, launched an offensive against the transitional government on May 7.

The rebel fighters say they are determined to topple Sharif's fledgling administration.

"We can expect clashes any time soon because there is no ceasefire deal in place and both sides are keeping vigil in their positions," said Abullahi Isse  Gacamey, a Somali police officer.

The hardliners who want Sharia law imposed across the Horn of Africa nation, have admitted receiving support from foreign jihadists.

The United States "urges the government of the state of Eritrea to stop fanning the flames of violence in Somalia," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday in a statement.

Kelly said the transitional government in Mogadishu has come under repeated attack from extremist groups pursuing a radical agenda "that can only promote further acts of terrorism and lead to greater regional instability."

A country of seven million people, Somalia has had no effective central authority since former president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, setting off a bloody cycle of clashes between rival factions.

Pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden by Somali groups have accentuated international concerns.

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