MOGADISHU (Reuters) -Rotting corpses lay in the open and explosions shook Mogadishu on Sunday for a fifth day of battles between insurgents and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops that have killed more than 200 people, residents said.
Illustrating regional divisions many say are fomenting the escalating war, Eritrea pulled out of the east African group IGAD after a rift with Ethiopia over Somalia. The feuding neighbors each accuse the other of stirring the conflict.
In an ever-growing exodus some say is nearing half a million people, hundreds more Somalis trudged out of Mogadishu on Sunday, dragging and carrying belongings on their head.
“I have lost all hope,” one woman said, walking at the head of 11 relatives, mainly children.
A Reuters correspondent in central Mogadishu was repeatedly woken through the night by the sound of mortars, mainly from the north of the city where the worst fighting has been.
Insurgents are barricaded behind makeshift sandbanks and race through streets on pickups turned into battle-wagons, while Ethiopian and Somali troops fire heavy artillery and make forays into their strongholds with armored cars.
With an insurgency simmering since the ouster of militant Islamist rulers from Mogadishu over the New Year, this week’s violence has been one of the worst sustained flare-ups since then. A previous four-day spike in battles at the end of March killed at least 1,000 people, mainly civilians.
Bodies lay on the streets on Sunday, some mutilated and decapitated by incessant shelling that has pulverized residential neighborhoods considered Islamist strongholds.
With Somalis keen to bury their dead quickly in accord with Muslim custom, some were digging makeshift graves by the road.
The Islamists ruled most of south Somalia for the second half of 2006, before being defeated by the interim government and its Ethiopian military backers in a war over the New Year.
But Islamist fighters — backed by some disgruntled Hawiye clan elements and foreign jihadists — have regrouped to rise up against President Abdullahi Yusuf’s administration and his Ethiopian backers whom they regard as hated foreign invaders.
Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of sending arms and men to support the Islamists, while Asmara says Addis Ababa is occupying Somalia illegally at the behest of the United States.
Eritrea’s exit from the seven-member Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was a blow to diplomatic efforts to unite foreign opinion on pacifying Somalia.
“The Government of Eritrea was compelled to take the move due to the fact that a number of repeated and irresponsible resolutions that undermine regional peace and security have been adopted in the guise of IGAD,” said a statement on the government Web site, shabait.com.
A meeting of IGAD foreign ministers two weeks ago in Kenya became a forum for the festering feud between Ethiopia and Eritrea, still bitter over their 1998-2000 border war and now locked in what many analysts see as a proxy war in Somalia.
Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea are the countries who make up the east African bloc.
The United Nations says more than 321,000 residents have fled Mogadishu since February, but locals put the figure higher.
“I think it’s nearer 500,000 now,” said the head of a Somali think-tank, who asked not to be named because of the precarious security situation.