MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – An insurgent attack on a peacekeeping base sparked gunbattles that killed at least 24 people Friday, as the undermanned African peacekeeping force tried to maintain the government’s tenuous hold on Somalia’s battered capital.
Mogadishu residents cowered in their homes before dawn as mortars slammed into the seaside capital and splintered the sprawling Bakara Market, where traders were setting up their goods for the day.
“Hundreds of well-armed insurgents came to our district with minibuses and pickup trucks and immediately they started firing toward the government troops and an African Union base,” Mogadishu resident Abdi Haji Ahmed told The Associated Press by telephone. “We have been ducking under our concrete balcony for hours.”
Wounded civilians, their clothing smeared with blood, were helped into cars. Alongside one traffic junction, three corpses lay in the dirt near a pair of African Union tanks.
Six people were killed at the Bakara market Friday, witnesses said. Ali Muse, the coordinator of Mogadishu’s ambulance service, said another 18 bodies had been transported Friday.
The al-Shabab insurgent group, which has foreign fighters in its ranks, operates openly in the capital and seeks to overthrow the government and impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia. Al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said his forces had attacked the African Union base because peacekeepers had rolled into rebel-controlled areas early Friday.
“They provoked us by coming into our areas, so we have a right to attack them in their bases,” Rage said.
Government troops and African Union peacekeepers hold only a few blocks of Mogadishu, but they still control key government buildings as well as the port and airport.
African Union spokesman Bahoku Barigye said no peacekeepers were killed or wounded.
Friday’s bloodshed came one day after fighting killed at least 40 people in central Somalia, where government forces are jockeying for position as rebels gain ground.
Witnesses also reported seeing troops from neighboring Ethiopia roll into the Somali town of Belet Weyne, a development that would enrage insurgents who saw Ethiopia as an occupying force after it helped drive out Islamists from power in Somalia in 2006. The witnesses said they identified the soldiers by their uniforms and their trucks with Ethiopian license plates, but the government has denied their presence.
Belet Weyne is militarily important because it is near the Ethiopian border and serves as a link between southern Somalia and the agriculturally rich central region.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. Many experts fear the country’s lawlessness could provide a haven for Al Qaeda, offering a place for terrorists to train and gather strength, much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. The United States accuses al-Shabab of having ties to the terror network, which al-Shabab denies.
Attempts to stabilize the country have failed amid an Islamist insurgency, continual splintering and reforming of alliances and a tangled web of clan loyalties.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country’s feuding factions, but the violence has continued.
As of June 30, the AU force in Mogadishu had 4,300 troops from Uganda and Burundi, just 54 percent of its authorized strength of 8,000.