Saturday, May 23, 2009

Since the start of 2007, fighting has killed at least 17,700 civilians and driven more than 1 million from their homes

TO BE NOTED: From Reuters:

Fighting in Mogadishu for second day
Sat May 23, 2009 3:53am EDT
* African Union calls for sanctions on Eritrea, no-fly zone

* Rebel reinforcements expected in capital

* At least 45 people killed on Friday in heavy clashes

(Recasts with fighting, AU call for sanctions on Eritrea)

By Mohamed Ahmed

MOGADISHU, May 23 (Reuters) - Government forces fought hardline Islamist insurgents on Saturday in Somalia's capital for a second day running to try to regain control of the city.

Heavy fighting killed at least 45 people, more than half of them civilians, and wounded nearly 200 on Friday in one of the bloodiest days of combat in Mogadishu in months.

Neighbouring states and Western governments fear Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a haven for militants linked to al Qaeda unless the new government under President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed can defeat them.

Residents said there was sporadic gunfire on Saturday but feared the fighting would intensify after reports of rebel reinforcements coming to confront a government offensive.

Islamist insurgents took up arms in 2007 to drive out Ethiopian troops propping up a Western-backed government which failed to wield control much of the Horn of Africa nation.

The Ethiopians withdrew at the start of 2009 and an Islamist president was elected in neighbouring Djibouti in January. But the insurgents have intensified attacks against the new administration and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu.

Somalia's government has accused Eritrea of supporting al Shabaab insurgents with planeloads of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.


The African Union stepped up pressure on the Horn of Africa nation late on Friday by calling for U.N. Security Council sanctions, a no fly-zone and sea blockade.

"(The United Nations Security Council should) impose sanctions against all those foreign actors, both within and outside the region, especially Eritrea, providing support to the armed groups," the 53-member body said in a statement.

Eritrea's president denies the charge and blames American agents for spreading lies to blacken his government's name.

Since the start of 2007, fighting has killed at least 17,700 civilians and driven more than 1 million from their homes. About 3 million Somalis survive on emergency food aid.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says 49,000 people have fled fighting in Mogadishu in the past two weeks.

Al Shabaab, which Washington says has close ties to al Qaeda, and Islamist guerrilla group Hizbul Islam have been spearheading attacks on the government, allied militia and African Union peacekeepers.

Until Friday, pro-government forces had not looked strong enough to break Shabaab's grip on parts of Mogadishu.

But last week's defection of a veteran warlord with hundreds of fighters under his command may have prompted Ahmed to order the new offensive.

Defence Minister Mohamed Abdi Gandi said on Friday the fighting would go on until the insurgents were beaten.

Experts say pro-government forces will be hard-pushed to extend their reach to distant provinces, increasing the risk of protracted fighting in a country that has known little but violence and anarchy since a dictator was ousted in 1991.

An important figure in any reconciliation would be hardline opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who ran Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia alongside Ahmed in late 2006.

The two Islamists -- Aweys was always considered the more hardline -- split after Ahmed joined the peace process.

"Somalia has no government we recognise," Aweys told Reuters in an interview on Friday. [ID:nLM978588] "We should not be deceived by Westerners like Sharif."

"We shall defeat the government soon, God willing." (Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Richard Williams)"

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