* Al Shabaab militants advance on presidential palace
* AU troops warn rebels to halt advancement
* Local journalist killed while covering battle
MOGADISHU, July 4 (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) on Saturday warned hardline Islamist insurgents who have been advancing on Somali government positions to back down or face retaliation.
By Ibrahim Mohamed
Saturday, July 04, 2009
More then 50 people have been killed in heavy fighting since Wednesday as government troops try to drive insurgents out of their Mogadishu bases.
"There is a limit, when they (insurgents) cross that line we shall engage them immediately," Major-General Francis Okello, AMISOM's commander told Reuters.
"That is in our mandate, and we are carefully watching them."
The 4,300 Ugandan and Burundian troops have been confined to their bases and are limited to protecting key sites such as the presidential palace, airport and seaport.
African leaders meeting at an AU summit in the Libyan city of Sirte this week did not adopt a much anticipated proposed resolution to give AMISOM troops a mandate to do more then just defend themselves from rebel attacks.
Instead, the 53-member AU summit adopted a resolution condemning insurgent attacks in Somalia and backing the government. They also accused Eritrea of supporting the rebels and called for sanctions on the tiny country.
The government of former hardliner turned moderate President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, has been pushing for the AMISOM mandate to be beefed up so it can help the government take on the rebels.
But the al Shabaab group had warned that a stronger AMISOM would have made the situation worse.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters in al Shabaab control much of southern and central Somalia and all but a few blocks of the capital.
"They (government) started the new offensive and they were defeated and remain in an area of only 2 kilometres (1.2 miles), they have suffered a major setback," Sheikh Muse Abdi Arale, spokesman for Hizbul Islam, an insurgent group told Reuters.
Residents say al Shabaab fighters were closing in on the presidential palace.
On Saturday, a local radio journalist who was shot in the stomach during Friday's battles died. Somalia is one of the world's most dangerous places for reporters to work.
Neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa region and western governments fear if the Somali government is overthrown, the lawless nation will become a safe haven for al Qaeda training camps and militants will destabilise the region.
The AU plan has always been to send 8,000 soldiers but pledges of more troops have so far failed to materialise. (Additional reporting by Abdi Guled and Mohammed Ahmed; Writing by Wangui Kanina; Editing by Sophie Hares).
Source: Reuters, July 04, 2009