MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Ethiopian tanks supporting the Somali government pounded insurgent positions in Mogadishu on Thursday and Somalia’s prime minister declared significant gains after a nine-day offensive.
Following the latest attack, Ali Mohamed Gedi said “most fighting” had ended and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops were clearing “pockets of resistance”.
Locals say this month’s clashes have killed some 300 people, mostly civilians, and emptied large parts of the city. “Most of the fighting in Mogadishu is now over. The government has captured a lot of territory where the insurgents were,” Gedi told a news conference.
Artillery and machinegun fire could still be heard in northern parts of the devastated coastal capital.
Gedi urged clan militia, who have joined the ranks of Islamist gunmen and foreign jihadists in fighting the government, to return home and stay there until his administration could incorporate them into a new national army.
The battles have shattered whole neighbourhoods of Mogadishu, forcing about a third of its residents to flee.
The United Nations said the exodus of nearly 340,000 people was fast turning Mogadishu into a “ghost city” and tens of thousands of refugees were suffering appalling conditions.
The top U.N. aid official warned all sides in the conflict on Thursday they were breaking humanitarian law by firing indiscriminately on civilian areas. “All factions are equally guilty of indiscriminate violence in a civilian area,” the U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes told a news conference. He urged international donors quickly to meet a $262 million U.N. appeal for Somalia which was so far only 36 percent met.
Residents said Thursday’s clashes around an anti-government stronghold in the north were the fiercest yet. “We are under heavy artillery and tank shelling. The Ethiopians are using whatever forces and material they have,” said a fighter from the capital’s dominant Hawiye clan. “This is the heaviest attack we have seen since the war started.”
Locals and rights activists say at least 300 people have died, and hundreds more been injured, in the most sustained battles since the joint Somali-Ethiopian force routed the Islamists in a war over the New Year.
More than 1,000 people were killed in a previous spike in fighting at the end of March.
The government says there will be no let-up in the war until it wipes out an insurgency defying its attempt to restore central rule to Somalia for the first time in 16 years.
Doctors at a paediatric and maternity clinic did their best to treat scores of wounded who found no space on Thursday among the bloodied wards of the city’s two main hospitals. “We have the doctors, but we do not have medical material and medicine. We are hoping to get medical supplies from the Red Cross soon,” Abdulahi Hashi Kadiye, deputy director of Banadir Hospital, told Reuters.
The incessant shelling also started a fire at warehouses stocked with building material and paints, sending thick plumes of smoke above the Industrial Road area of factories, a charcoal market and soccer stadium, one witness said.
Analysts say Christian-led Ethiopia enjoys tacit approval for its involvement in Somalia from the United States, which accuses the Islamists of links to al Qaeda.
Washington, which counts donor-dependent Ethiopia as one of its closest allies in its war on terrorism, has called for a ceasefire and expressed concern about a humanitarian crisis.