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17 die in clashes at Mogadishu

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Clashes pitting Somali government forces and their African Union allies against Islamist rebels for control of Mogadishu's main market left at least 17 civilians dead on Thursday, officials said.

Many of the victims died when stray artillery fire hit a bus station where people were waiting.

"At least seventeen civilian dead have been counted so far and nine of them were killed after artillery fire struck a bus station near Arafat hospital," Ali Muse, head of the Mogadishu ambulance service, told AFP.

"Another 46 civilians were injured and the death toll could rise," he said. Tension has been building around Bakara market, long a stronghold of Al Qaeda-inspired Shabaab rebels, for the past 10 days and the vast majority of traders moved their wares out several days ago.

The Shabaab had been digging in trenches inside the market, while government forces and their African Union backers had taken up positions around the market.

Somali government officials confirmed the fighting and claimed they were advancing onto new positions previously held by the Shabaab, but declined to give details about the casualties.

"We have beaten the enemy back and our forces are now advancing onto new positions very close to their last stronghold in Bakara. The fighting started last night and is still continuing sporadically around some positions," Somali deputy chief of staff Lieutenant-Colonel Yusuf Dhegobadan, told reporters at the frontline.
"We took control of some key positions this morning ... and penetrated deep into their big trenches," he added.

Witnesses confirmed the civilian casualties, saying that some of those killed were struck by stray bullets that reached far beyond the contested areas.

"Stray bullets were flying over Industrial Road and many people were caught in the crossfire. There was also heavy artillery fire that was striking neighbourhoods far away from the zone of the fighting," Mohamud Adan, a witness said.

"Today nearly 20 people died and there are even more wounded. It's absolutely terrible," Ibrahim Moalim Ahmed, another witness said.

The chief of staff of the African Union (AU) force Amisom, Colonel Innocent Oula, said the government forces and their Amisom allies were trying to avoid any clashes within the actual market, which is the Somali capital's main commercial hub.

"While our joint forces are indeed close to the market, we have left a clear route open to the extremists to withdraw. We urge them to take advantage of this and spare the Somali people any more suffering," he said.

"What happens now is in their hands. If they refuse to leave, however, we will be left with no option other than to force them out," he said adding that "any plans to do so will be undertaken with the greatest care to ensure minimal harm and damage to lives and property".