MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Sporadic shelling and gunfire shook Mogadishu on Friday, but Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf downplayed this week’s violence which residents say has killed at least 30 people and wounded scores more.
Bloodied patients screamed and doctors struggled to tend to the wounded crammed into Mogadishu’s Madina Hospital after four days of clashes between troops and insurgents.
Troops blocked off roads to military bases after a suicide attacker blew himself up on Thursday at a former prison now used by the interim Somali government’s Ethiopian military allies.
At least 21 people, mainly civilians, died in that blast and other fighting across the city on Thursday.
Residents hardened by 16 years of lawlessness say violence is getting worse in Mogadishu, where Islamist and Hawiye clan insurgents are battling government forces, Ethiopian soldiers and African Union peacekeepers.
Adding to an exodus since of 218,000 — more than one fifth of the city’s population — since February, hundreds more people were streaming out of the capital by foot, donkey, cart and vehicle on Friday, witnesses said.
The United Nations has warned of a looming catastrophe with a diarrhoea epidemic that has already killed more than 400 people and widespread cholera affecting hundreds more. “I don’t really share the opinion that the situation in Mogadishu or Somalia is getting more tense and more protracted, more difficult,” Yusuf told reporters via a translator. “Rather I would say the problem of Somalia is slowly but surely ending,” he said in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa where he was holding talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In Mogadishu, residents said the latest fighting, which also saw rockets fired on a crowded market on Thursday, was as bad as four days of battles that killed up to 1,000 people at the end of March. The violence is the city’s worst for a decade. “We have admitted 71, and 41 of them are seriously injured and the other 30 had minor injuries,” a doctor at Madina Hospital told Reuters. “I’ve lost count,” said another doctor, Abdi Mohamed Elmi, when asked how many operations he had done.
A little known Islamist group, calling itself the Young Mujahideen Movement in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the suicide blast and said it used chemicals in the attack, according to an Internet statement.
It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the statement, which referred to a “martyrdom operation”.
Yusuf vowed to hunt down gunmen loyal to an Islamist movement defying his government’s attempt to establish central rule for the first time in the Horn of Africa nation since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. “Our aim is to protect the public and the government from attacks of these remnants of the Islamic Courts,” Yusuf said.
State-run Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) said Yusuf and Meles in their talks “underscored the need to intensify terrorist mopping up operations in Mogadishu”.
Any military escalation is likely to send more families fleeing from Mogadishu. Tens of thousands are living in the open, short of food, water and basic facilities.
Oxfam urged Kenya on Friday to reopen its border to allow aid to cross and Somali asylum seekers to be screened. “The approach of the rainy season makes the need for shelter material more pressing as families living under the trees are exposed to the scorching sun, heavy rains and the chilling nights,” the U.N. refugee agency said.
Under international pressure, the government is pursuing a national econciliation conference that diplomats say could stem the bloodshed if it is truly inclusive. But insecurity forced the meeting to be postponed until next month.