Fri, Apr 27, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Ethiopians shell Islamist stronghold

KIDS' LUCKY ESCAPE A shell that hit a children's hospital exploded in a ward housing between 20 and 30 wounded adults because the children had been evacuated earlier


Ethiopian tanks and artillery shelled an insurgent stronghold in north Mogadishu yesterday, as ceasefire talks floundered and rumors spread that a top Islamic rebel had arrived in the capital.

The heavy weapons fire was in support of Somali government troops attempting to clear insurgents from a neighborhood known for housing Islamic radicals. A missile slammed through the roof of a nearby children's hospital packed with wounded civilians late on Wednesday.

Leaders from the Hawiye clan were expected to meet again yesterday with Ethiopian army officers to negotiate a ceasefire. A clan leader who attended the meeting said the Ethiopian officers wanted the elders to hand over fighters from the Council of Islamic Courts military wing, the Shabab.

The Shabab, which the US accuses of having ties to al-Qaeda, have taken credit for a string of suicide bombings against Ethiopian troops. The leader who attended the meeting, but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the elders denied any knowledge about the Shabab or al-Qaeda suspects believed to be in the country.

Meanwhile, bodyguards linked to a top Islamic extremist, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, arrived in Mogadishu on Wednesday, sparking rumors that Aweys and other Shabab leaders were leading the fighting against the Somali and Ethiopian troops. Most of the courts' leadership has either fled the country, or been in hiding since Ethiopia intervened in December to prop up the government.

The shell that hit the children's hospital on Wednesday exploded in a ward housing between 20 and 30 wounded adults, said Wilhelm Huber, regional director for the SOS Children's Villages. The children had been evacuated earlier because shells were hitting the compound, Huber said.

Five missiles hit the grounds in the lunchtime attack, but only one hit a ward, Huber said. People were injured, he said, but he did not have details due to the chaotic situation and because wounded people were already on the ward.

"What is happening now cannot go on," he said from Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based. He said he did not believe the hospital had been deliberately targeted, but that the shell clearly had come from government forces because of the direction of the missiles.

"People are desperate," Huber said. "This is a tragic situation."

Somali government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Meanwhile, analysts said on Wednesday that US and Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia had destroyed a fragile stability in this battle-scarred nation, as more than a week of unrelenting violence trapped desperate civilians in their homes with gunfire and artillery shells raining down outside.

The leaders of an Islamic movement that was driven from power in December by the government and its Ethiopian backers were still active, and popular support for the group is unlikely to melt away, according to a report by British-based international affairs think-tank Chatham House.

The Council of Islamic Courts ruled much of southern Somalia for six relatively peaceful months last year before being ousted by Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies, along with US special forces. Radicals in the council rejected a secular government and have been accused of having ties to al-Qaeda.

Rights groups say more than 350 people have been killed in eight straight days of fighting..

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