MOGADISHU,(Reuters) – Rebels shot down a helicopter gunship in Mogadishu on Friday in a second day of battles as Ethiopian and Somali forces sought to crush an insurgency by Islamists and clan militia.
At least 30 people, and probably far more, have died.
Shells rained down on the capital and deafening tank fire shattered homes, as hundreds of guerrillas replied with barrages of mortars, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
As terrified residents hid in their homes, reporters watched from rooftops as two Ethiopian helicopters fired on an insurgent stronghold before one of them was struck by a missile or RPG. “Smoke billowed from the cabin and it turned towards the ocean,” one witness, Swiss journalist Eugen Sorg, told Reuters. “It crashed at the south end of the airport runway.”
Black smoke poured into the air and several explosions were heard booming from the crash site by the Indian Ocean coast.
The joint Ethiopian and government offensive was the bullet-scarred city’s worst fighting for months. “A mortar has just fallen into the house next to me. We can hear crying,” said Faisal Jamah, a south Mogadishu resident. “We barely slept. … The sky was lit up by shelling all night.”
Mobs dragged dead Ethiopian soldiers through the streets on Thursday, and wild-eyed gunmen posed with the corpses.
The bloody scenes recalled the shooting down by militiamen of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in 1993 during a failed U.S. mission to hunt down Mogadishu warlords.
More than 100 people have been wounded since Thursday, and the toll of dead and injured looked sure to rise. “There are a lot of wounded, but there is no way to take them to the hospitals due to the fighting,” Jamah added.
With some of the clan militia who used to rule the capital fighting alongside the Islamists, the battles have torn a brief and shaky truce between the Ethiopian military and the city’s dominant clan, the Hawiye, to shreds.
Analysts said Addis Ababa appeared bent on an all-out push against the insurgents, who have been emboldened by recent strikes including the downing of an airplane serving an African peacekeeping mission, and ambushes killing soldiers.
While Christian-led Ethiopia clearly hopes this week’s offensive will crush the rebels once and for all, it may have the opposite effect of further alienating the city’s population or attracting foreign Muslim jihadists, the experts said.
The White House provided a report to the U.S. Congress on Thursday saying foreign militants were still able to find a safe haven in Somalia.
Some of Friday’s heaviest fighting was in streets around the main soccer stadium, where local media said Ethiopian troops and rebels had dug trenches just a few metres apart.
One Islamist gunmen said the Ethiopians were pinned down. “We killed a lot of them and burned their trucks,” Hassan Osman told Reuters. “Right now, they control only the stadium.”
Local media said panic-stricken civilians continued to flee the city on Friday, many of them piling their possessions on donkey-carts. The United Nations refugee agency said 12,000 had left Mogadishu in the last week alone.
Despite the carnage, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi was confident a major reconciliation conference scheduled to take place in Mogadishu in mid-April would still go ahead.
Moderate Islamists who renounced violence and recognised his government’s legitimacy would be allowed to take part, he said. And he denied security was slipping out of control. “This is what the mass media is spreading, but the reality is different,” he told the BBC from Riyadh.
The mandate for the administration, which is the 14th attempt to restore central rule in Somalia since 1991, runs out in 2009, after which in theory there should be elections.
The African Union (AU) has sent 1,200 Ugandan troops to help the government, but they have been attacked. Other African nations are balking at sending further troops needed to boost the AU force to its planned strength of 8,000.