MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Somali government forces attacked rebel strongholds in Mogadishu on Friday, triggering battles across the capital that killed at least 15 people.
Neighbouring states and Western security forces fear Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a haven for militants linked to al Qaeda.
Witnesses said four insurgents from the hardline Islamist al Shabaab group died and a journalist from local independent Shabelle Radio was also killed. Residents cowered in their homes as both sides swapped heavy weapons fire.
“I saw masked men running away carrying the bodies of four of their friends,” Halima Osman, a mother-of-three who lives in the city’s sprawling Bakara Market, told Reuters.
“We were surprised to see men in government uniforms fighting in Bakara. They have recaptured four police stations between here and the palace, and they are advancing further.”
The government says there is little hope of negotiating with the Shabaab gunmen trying to topple it. The administration says the rebels have no political agenda and have hundreds of foreign extremists in their ranks.
Sources at two Mogadishu hospitals said they received 85 wounded civilians on Friday, and that four of them later died. Residents in the city’s Hodon district said the bodies of six dead insurgents were lying at a police station there. The heaviest fighting for months has killed scores of civilians and uprooted tens of thousands in the last two weeks.
Residents said Friday’s pre-dawn assaults looked to be a concerted effort by pro-government forces to seize back control of strategic sites in the capital held by the rebels. “They have surrounded Bakara Market, al Shabaab’s biggest stronghold in the city. We hope for the sake of peace that the government forces do not retreat later,” one local man said.
Hassan Mahdi, a spokesman for Hizbul Islam, another Islamist guerrilla group battling the government, told Reuters by telephone that troops had struck at their positions too.
“Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam are counter-attacking … we have pushed them back in some places. There are casualties, but I can’t say how many. We are in the middle of fighting,” Mahdi said as heavy gunfire thundered in the background.
Local journalist Abdirizak Warsame was killed in the crossfire as he walked to work at his radio station.
“A stray bullet hit him in the head and he died on the spot,” Shabelle Radio boss Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe told Reuters.
Fighting has killed at least 17,700 civilians and driven more than 1 million from their homes since the start of 2007. About 3 million Somalis survive on emergency food aid.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says 46,000 people have fled clashes in Mogadishu in the past two weeks.
Islamist rebels including Shabaab — which Washington accuses of having close links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda — control much of the south and centre of the country.
While they have brought relative security to some areas, the militants’ strict interpretation of sharia law has angered some Somalis who are traditionally more moderate Muslims.