Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mogadishu war rages, shells kill civilians

Sat Apr 21, 2007 2:40 PM IST

By Sahal Abdulle

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Shells rocked Mogadishu throughout the night, killing more civilians on Saturday and swelling a vast exodus from an escalating war between militant Islamists and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops.

"There are a lot of deaths. I am carrying the bodies of two family members into my car now," one distraught resident, who asked not to give his name, told Reuters.

Battles since Wednesday have killed at least 131 people, a local rights group said late on Friday. The deaths overnight will push up the toll.

A similar four-day flareup in March killed 1,000 people, adding to the city's history of anarchy and bloodshed since the 1991 fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

The United Nations says 321,000 residents -- or nearly a third of Mogadishu's estimated one million population -- have fled since February in what it and aid agencies are calling a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Many refugees are living under trees and beside roads.

In Mogadishu, residents described a terrifying night of near-constant shelling mixed with thunder from a storm.

"At one point you couldn't tell the difference. My windows were shaking," a Reuters witness said, half a dozen shells exploding within earshot as he spoke by telephone to his head office in Nairobi.

Mortars, apparently from Ethiopian positions, hit the offices of the private broadcaster HornAfrik on Saturday morning, wounding some journalists inside, witnesses said.


"We are in a state of shock, I see no end to this," said Ali Haji, 50, a resident who took his family out of Mogadishu last month but came back to protect his house and belongings.

"I've had enough. I'm abandoning the house. I am caught between two groups -- Ethiopians trying to kill me because I am Somali, and insurgents not happy because I am not picking up a gun and fighting with them. I have lost all hope."

Other residents confirmed incessant bombardments. "We are under heavy shelling, 15 have fallen into our neighbourhood within the last hour," one said in Towfiq district.

With even a cemetery under bombardment on Saturday, Mogadishu residents were burying their dead in makeshift graves by the side of the road. Parts of the city were like a ghost-town of deserted streets and shattered buildings.

The only operating hospital, Madina, was packed with wounded, screams echoing through the corridors. But access to the hospital involved a dangerous journey through streets ricocheting to gunfire and explosions, witnesses said.

Insurgents barricaded themselves behind makeshift sandbanks and raced through streets on the backs of pickups turned into battle-wagons, while Ethiopian and Somali troops made forays into rebel strongholds with armoured cars.

Soldiers blocked off roads to military bases after an Islamist suicide attacker blew himself up on Thursday at a former prison now used by the Ethiopians.

The Islamists ruled most of south Somalia for the second half of 2006, before being defeated in a brief war over the New Year. But Islamist fighters -- backed by some disgruntled Hawiye clan elements -- have regrouped to rise up against President Abdullahi Yusuf's administration and his Ethiopian backers.

A small African Union peacekeeping force of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers has failed to stem the conflict.

The United States, Ethiopia and the Somali government say the Islamists are closely aligned to al Qaeda, but leaders of the movement deny that, saying they are being deprived of a say in Somalia's future.

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