Tue, Apr 24, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Ethiopian forces step up battle against insurgents

AFP , MOGADISHU

Heavy shelling shook the Somali capital yesterday as Ethiopian forces stepped up the fight against Islamist insurgents, now in its sixth day, amid fears of mounting civilian casualties.

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.

There were no immediate reports of casualities as the battle fields were inaccessible.

"I 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 steadily increasing everyday. The Ethiopian forces are hitting civilians indiscriminately," said Hussein Said Korgab, the spokesman for Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan.

The clashes, which erupted last Wednesday, have so far killed 219 civilians and wounded hundreds others, according to the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organization 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 said.

Hundreds of civilians, clutching personal belongings, took advantage of relative calmness in southern Mogadishu and fled their neighborhoods, 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.

"Every time news comes, it is bad news of the death. We must leave until we have confirmed that this place is safer for human habitation," she said.

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

The UN says some 321,000 people have fled Mogadishu since February.

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