At least 29 people died in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, as Islamic insurgents began a new offensive against government forces and African Union peacekeepers in the city.
Fighting erupted yesterday and continued today as the two sides exchanged mortar fire and fighters from the rebel al-Shabaab militia fired rocket-propelled grenades, said Ali Muse Sheikh, a paramedic at Nationlink and Lifeline Africa. Most of the bodies collected so far were of women killed in Bakara market in the central Mogadishu, he said in a phone interview.
“Somalia’s terrorist group al-Shabaab has begun an offensive against Somali government installations in Mogadishu,” Somalia’s Information Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
Somalia’s Western-backed government has been battling insurgents, including al-Shabaab, which the U.S. accuses of having links with al-Qaeda, and Hisbul Islam since 2007. Most of southern and central Somalia has been seized by the insurgents, while President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s administration controls only portions of Mogadishu, with support from the AU peacekeepers.
The AU plans to send 2,000 additional peacekeepers to Somalia to bolster its existing 6,100-strong force, a move that the United Nations has welcomed as a sign that there is “heightened concern” at the continental body about the Somali conflict.
Somalia is host to more than 2,000 foreign fighters, from India, Pakistan and elsewhere, who are providing funds and training for terrorist operations, Wafula Wamunyinyi, deputy head of the AU mission in Somalia, told reporters yesterday in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya.
Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, a spokesman for al-Shabaab, told reporters in Mogadishu yesterday the group plans to “eradicate the invaders and apostate government troops” in Somalia.
“I call on all al-Shabaab troops, beginning at this hour, to invade and destroy all entrenchments of the apostate and Christian troops,” he said.
Muse at Nationlink said at least 97 people have been injured in the fighting.
“The casualties may increase dramatically,” he said. “Our staff has been collecting casualties through the night.”
Almost 4 million people in Somalia, equivalent to 40 percent of the country’s population, are in need of humanitarian aid and 1.4 million residents have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, Wamunyinyi said.
Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central administration since the ouster of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.