MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies fought Islamist insurgents in Mogadishu for a second day on Friday.
A government official said the Islamist rebels had joined forces with thousands of foreign jihadists.
At least 19 people have been killed by violence in the past 24 hours, including a mortar strike on the capital’s busy Bakara Market that left mutilated bodies piled in pools of blood.
Many Somalis say the insurgents — remnants of a hardline sharia court groups chased out of the city a year ago — have become increasingly confident in recent months while an interim government has been hobbled by infighting. “Foreign Islamist elements from Afghanistan, Chechnya and some Arab nations have arrived (in October and November). There are around 4,500 foreign terrorists in the country,” said Sheikh Qasim Ibrahim Nur, a director at the Security Ministry. “Eighty percent of the country is at risk, and I can say terrorist activities in Somalia are at their maximum level.”
Fighting in Mogadishu has killed nearly 6,000 civilians this year and uprooted some 720,000 more, according to a local rights group. The United Nations says the humanitarian crisis in Somalia is Africa’s worst.
Nur said the insurgents were receiving weapons from Iran. “We have evidence that a large amount of weapons were shipped to Somalia from Iran. These weapons have been offloaded from Hobyo and Bravo ports,” he said. “These sophisticated weapons were intended to annihilate the Somali people.” His comments could not immediately be independently verified.
After Thursday’s mortar blasts, heavy battles broke out on Friday, forcing scores of residents to flee their homes. “Our vicinity is occupied by Ethiopian tanks and soldiers. They are firing heavy weapons towards nearby areas,” said Mohamed Ali, a resident in Arafat in the north of the capital. “There is no single human being left in the neighbourhood today. What is happening is unbearable,” he told Reuters.
Another witness said he saw the bodies of two women who had been killed in the crossfire sprawled in a road. The city’s main Madina Hospital was treating more than 80 wounded, doctors said.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said joint Somali-Ethiopian forces killed 75 rebels on Thursday during a surprise attack on an insurgent base outside Mogadishu.
There was no independent confirmation of that from Somalia.
Berhan denied civilians had been killed in the latest fighting in the Somali capital. “As far as we know, Mogadishu remained peaceful during the week,” he said.