Tue, Apr 03, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Mogadishu prepares for fresh offensive

LEAVE NOW Rejecting a ceasefire between the Ethiopian military and clan elders, the administration told residents in disputed areas to leave or risk being targets

AP , MOGADISHU

Backed by Ethiopian forces, the fragile Somali government called on civilians in the capital yesterday to leave their homes in disputed areas before a new military offensive against an Islamic insurgency.

Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said the government does not recognize a ceasefire negotiated between the Ethiopian military and clan elders.

"We call on the civilians living in terrorist-held areas in Mogadishu to abandon their houses because it is possible that government troops may target these areas any time," Jelle said. "We have to clean al-Qaeda elements from Mogadishu."

There was a glimmer of hope on Sunday when Mogadishu's highly influential and dominant clan said it had brokered a truce to stop the fighting.

But mortars were raining down hours after Hawiye clan spokesman Ahmed Diriye made the announcement, and military officials were not available for comment.

The UN refugee agency says 47,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled violence in the Somali capital in the past 10 days.

A Somali human rights group, meanwhile, said yesterday that 381 people had been killed and 565 wounded in the last four days of fighting in Mogadishu.

Nevertheless, there was calm in the capital early yesterday.

Some businesses were reopened and the public transport system started to operate in the deserted streets of the capital.

Jelle said his government had been fighting for the past four days with terrorists, not clan militias.

"The Hawiye clan are not terrorists," Jelle said, adding that the government doesn't recognize "the so-called ceasefire."

"It is null and void," he said.

He also dismissed reports that Ethiopian reinforcements were pouring into the city of 2 million. Around 4,000 Ethiopian troops are in Mogadishu, said Western diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because it related to security matters.

Uganda, which has about 1,400 troops here as the vanguard of a larger African Union peacekeeping force, said on Sunday it had lost its first soldier -- a man who was hit by a mortar on Saturday. So far, Uganda is the only country to contribute to the peacekeeping force.

The insurgents are linked to the Council of Islamic Courts, which was driven from power in December by Somali and Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by US special forces.

The US has accused the courts of having ties to al-Qaeda.

The Islamic courts stockpiled thousands of tonnes of weapons and ammunition during the six months they controlled Mogadishu. The insurgency will likely last until that stockpile is depleted, or key leaders are killed.

The militants have long rejected any secular government and have sworn to fight until Somalia becomes an Islamic emirate.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. In Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit sent urgent letters Sunday to the UN, Arab League and the African Union urging a speedy intervention to end the fighting in Somalia.

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