Thursday, March 29, 2007

Somalia Update: Fighting Intensifies Amid Continuing US-backed Occupation

Ethiopian offensive spurs deadly violence in Somali capital


Seven Ethiopian soldiers were killed on Thursday in Mogadishu, and two of their bodies dragged through the streets amid heavy fighting sparked by an Ethiopian offensive against insurgents.

Dozens of men and women pulled the bodies of two soldiers though the street, shouting "We will kill the Ethiopian troops", while five other bodies in Ethiopian uniforms lay on the ground in the southern district of Shirkole.

They were the first Ethiopian soldiers reported killed in Mogadishu since Somali-Ethiopian troops drove out Islamists from the capital three months ago.

The scenes echoed deadly violence last week, when angry crowds burned the bodies of two dead Somali soldiers and dragged another through the streets.

A Somali man scurries away as bodies of two Ethiopian soldiers lay on a street of Mogadishu during heavy fighting.

Loudspeakers on Thursday transmitted calls for residents to come out and fight the Ethiopian troops backing Somalia's interim government, after the Ethiopians launched a heavy offensive in tanks and helicopters.

As the fighting continued, an AFP correspondent witnessed a plane leaving Mogadishu airport with around a dozen wounded Ethiopian soldiers on board. The same plane had brought in around 60 Ethiopian soldiers on Thursday morning.

Ethiopian helicopters dropped deafening bombs and fired heavy machine gun fire in the first airborne attacks since the start of the year.

An AFP correspondent saw helicopters fire missiles near the Ethiopian forces' base in the former Somali defence ministry headquarters -- a common target for insurgent attacks.

A thick cloud of black smoke also rose up from fighting around Mogadishu stadium and helicopters fired rockets near the main Bakara market.

"The idea is to clear Mogadishu of gunmen," an Ethiopian diplomat in Somalia told AFP, requesting anonymity.

"The military operation will continue until all the objectives are fulfilled. We are urging the people of Mogadishu to stay at home, not to panic or join attacks against the Ethiopian troops," he said.

"The military operation will immediately cease when there are no gunmen and troublemakers in that part of Mogadishu," he added.

The fighting mainly took place in the south, but there were also attacks in Mogadishu's Ramadan district in the north of the city.

Five people died after being brought wounded into Medina hospital, out of a total of 130 injured there. In all 15 people, all civilians, were killed when caught in crossfire.

The fighting shattered a shaky six-day ceasefire with the powerful Hawiye clan, which has largely controlled the Somali capital since 1991.

A spokesman for the Hawiye told AFP on Thursday that they held Ethiopia and the Somali government responsible for the casualities.

"The government and Ethiopian forces started the fighting and they will take the responsibility of any casualty in this fighting," said Ahmed Diriye, a Hawiye elder.

As his troops fought in Mogadishu, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament in Addis Ababa that he had withdrawn two-thirds of his forces from Somalia.

"As the situation in Somalia unravelled differently than expected, we had to withdraw troops gradually in two rounds. Hence, two-thirds of our troops have been withdrawn so far," Meles said in a speech to parliament.

"Our mission was to destroy the fundamentalist threat posed on us and we have succeeded in achieving this."

Islamists who ruled southern and central Somalia for six months from June last year had threatened to attack neighbouring Ethiopia.

But Meles said a second round of withdrawal had been delayed because the African Union's deployment of peacekeepers has not taken place "as desired."

AU troops plan to take over from Ethiopian forces to allow them to withdraw but have yet to make their mark in the volatile Somali capital as only 1,500 Ugandan troops have arrived so far.

The AU force is supposed to number 8000 but only 4000 have been committed. The Uganda troops are the only ones to have been deployed.

The government last week announced a crackdown on Islamist insurgent fighters in a bid to bring calm to the capital ahead of a national reconciliation conference set to start mid-April.

The United Nations said on Thursday that 57,000 people had fled Mogadishu since February, including 12,000 in the last week alone.

A bloody power struggle that followed the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre exploded into inter-clan warfare that has defied more than 14 attempts to restore a functional government in Somalia.

2007 AFP
29/03/2007 18:00:02 UST

Death and carnage in Somalia as rebels attacked

29 March 2007

MOGADISHU - Helicopters and tanks pounded rebel positions across Mogadishu on Thursday as allied Ethiopian and Somali troops launched a major push to end a bloody insurgency, with at least 11 civilians reported killed.

With scenes of carnage shocking even by Mogadishu standards, residents said the final death toll could be much higher.

“Patients are coming to us by the minute, it is too much,” one harried doctor at Madina hospital told Reuters by telephone.

“We have admitted 50 patients with weapon-related wounds, three died here, including a 10-year-old boy.”

Several Ethiopian helicopter gunships fired rockets, Reuters witnesses said, in the first use of aerial power in the capital during the last few months’ increasingly vicious fighting.

Government and Ethiopian forces are pitted against Islamists ousted from Mogadishu over the New Year and disgruntled clan militia who used to run the lawless coastal city.

Amid the chaos, one mortar crashed into a mosque, killing a baby boy there and beheading another teenage boy.

“My children sought refuge at a mosque when it was hit by a mortar shell. My son died and my daughter lost the toes on one of her feet,” local police officer Hashim Hussein told Reuters, his voice cracking with emotion.

Another mortar hit a fuel tank, witnesses said, sparking a huge blaze that engulfed a local watchman and truck owner.

Breaking a rocky ceasefire in place since the weekend, the Ethiopian and Somali government soldiers launched attacks from early morning on insurgents’ strongholds in the Ramadan area of north Mogadishu, around the main soccer stadium, and elsewhere.

“I have not seen anything like this,” said one terrified resident, Hussein Haji. “Whenever the Ethiopians fire their big guns, all my windows and doors are shaking.”

Truce over

Explosions and gunfire rattled around the streets from soon after dawn, sending locals running for cover in their homes.

“Early in the morning, the government troops and Ethiopians attacked us,” said one Islamist source involved in the fighting.

The local Shabelle broadcaster said at least 11 people, mainly civilians, had been killed on Thursday.

It also reported two tanks had been destroyed.

“The Ethiopian forces, who are now facing strong resistance, continue to shell,” it added. “Two helicopter gunships started bombardments in the rebel positions of the capital.”

Reuters journalists, trapped in their buildings by the fighting, saw helicopters firing and thick smoke rising as explosions and gunfire reverberated across the city.

The Ethiopians had brokered the truce at the weekend with Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan after a week that saw at least two dozen people killed, dead soldiers dragged through streets and burnt, and a plane crash probably caused by a missile.

That fighting was the worst since the war to kick out the Islamists and install President Abdullahi Yusuf’s interim government in the capital.

His administration is the 14th attempt at restoring central rule since the 1991 ouster of a military dictator.

The African Union (AU) has sent 1,200 Ugandan troops to help pacify Somalia. But they have also been attacked in a nation that defied a UN-U.S. peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s.

Other African nations are baulking at sending further troops needed to boost the AU force to its planned strength of 8,000.

The United Nations said on Thursday that 57,000 people had fled Mogadishu since February, including 12,000 in the last week alone. “They are hungry and face harassment from thugs,” the UN refugee agency said in a statement.

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