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Shelling rattles Somalian capital

Ethiopian forces stepped up their nearly week-long battle against Islamist insurgents.

world Updated: Apr 26, 2007 14:49 IST

Heavy shelling shook the Somali capital Monday as Ethiopian forces stepped up their nearly week-long battle against Islamist insurgents, and civilian casualties mounted.

After a night of sporadic fire, heavy explosions hit northern Mogadishu's districts, where Ethiopian forces aboard tanks and trucks pursued the insurgents seeking to wipe them out from the seaside capital, residents said.

At least five people were killed and 15 wounded as the clashes raged.

"We have recovered the bodies of four people in a shop near Tawfiq area after an artillery shell landed in a house where they were hiding," said elder Ollow Mohamed Hassan. Another man was killed by a stray bullet.

Doctors in the capital's main Medina hospital, which is overwhelmed with the wounded, said they were treating 15 people from Monday clashes.

"We have seen Ethiopian tanks taking positions and heavily shelling insurgent positions," said Mukhtar Mohamed, a resident of Fagah in northern Mogadishu.

"The fighting is heavier than yesterday, the rivals are exchanging machine guns, mortar and anti-aircraft fire," he added.

Several civilians were trapped in the area as scores of rotting corpses lay abandoned in demolished buildings and in the streets where Ethiopian tanks and the insurgents' modified pick-up trucks raced with fighters aboard firing recklessly.

"The fighting is very heavy and the casualties are steadly increasing everyday. The Ethiopian forces are hitting civilians indiscriminately," Hussein Said Korgab, the spokesman for Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan, said.

The clashes, which erupted last week, have so far killed at least 219 people -- including nine insurgents -- and wounded hundreds others, according to the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation which tracks casualty figures.

The latest flare-up has displaced tens of thousands and destroyed property of massive value, Korgab said.

"At least 70,000 have evacuated their homes. Property worth 500 million dollars has been destroyed. The Ethiopian and government forces will take ultimate responsibility for all this mess," he added.

Hundreds of civilians, clutching their personal belongings, fled their homes in southern Mogadishu, part of an ever-increasing exodus from the city that has been wracked by the worst bloodletting since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

"We have to flee because there is no hope of staying in this town. We are afraid that the fighting is getting worse everyday," said Hassan Mohamed, a resident of Waberi area in southern Mogadishu.

"We have no place to stay in this town. Everywhere in Mogadishu is the same: death. We are running away until we reach a safer place," said Saadia Bur Dheere, a mother of three, while boarding a packed pick-up truck.

Earlier this month four days of fighting claimed at least 1,000 lives in clashes that were described as the worst bloodletting since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

The United Nations says some 321,000 people have fled Mogadishu since February. Many are camped under trees and makeshift hovels in the city's outskirts, without supplies and where disease outbreaks have been reported.

Ethiopian troops helped Somalia's UN-backed government to oust Islamists from the country's south and central regions in January.

But since then fighting has steadily grown worse as insurgents and clan warlords have waged a guerrilla war, vowing to drive out foreign forces from the Horn of Africa nation.

On Sunday, Somalia's Ethiopian-backed Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi vowed to crack down on insurgents, some of whom are allegedly linked to the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.

"Until the terrorists are wiped out from Somalia, the fighting will go on," he told Mogadishu-based Shabelle radio.

Somalia has lacked an effective government since Barre's ouster touched off a deadly power struggle that has defied more than 14 attempts to stabilize the country of about 10 million.