MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Militiamen loyal to the government battled Islamist al Shabaab fighters in Somalia on Wednesday despite calls from around the world for a halt to the country’s worst fighting in months.
Years of conflict have sucked in foreign militants, confounded 15 attempts to establish a central government, killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and created a security vacuum that has spawned piracy and other criminal activity.
Since the weekend, the capital Mogadishu has been rocked by mortar and machine gun fire as Islamist rebels try to topple President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government. The violence has killed at least 113 civilians, and thousands have fled the city.
“Tension is high, and more people are expected to die or evacuate this month,” said Yasin Ali Gedi, vice chairman of the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights group.
“Powerful groups are confronting in the city.”
There were more deaths and injuries in the first week of May than the four previous months, he told Reuters.
Fierce clashes between Shabaab and a more moderate Islamist militia, Ahlu Sunna, in the central region killed at least five people on Tuesday in Mahas town, witnesses said.
“Al Shabaab fighters ran into a mosque for refuge, but residents kept firing at them with rocket-propelled grenades,” local man Aden Hussein said by telephone from Mahas, which lies southwest of El Bur, a major Shabaab stronghold since 2006.
Local elders later intervened, he added, and persuaded the Shabaab gunmen to lay down their arms. The 126 rebels were briefly held captive, then released, residents said.
Thousands of civilians have fled parts of northern Mogadishu in recent days. On Wednesday, heavy clashes shook the same streets again. Few details were immediately available.
The United Nations, African Union (AU), European Union and the United States have all condemned the violence and urged support for Ahmed’s young government, formed in January.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters in Addis Ababa that more peacekeepers were expected to join the 4,300-strong AU force of Burundians and Ugandans there.
“We have received a pledge from Burundi for another battalion. With the pledge from Sierra Leone that brings the total to nearly 6,000. They will arrive as soon as possible.”
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said more attention was needed on combating criminal activities.
Criminal gangs, militia and a myriad armed players have made millions of dollars through kidnappings, extortion, illegal trading and piracy over the last 18 years of Somalia’s anarchy.
“Time is long overdue to address the economic, financial and criminal activity related to the Somali crisis. We see only a political crisis,” he told reporters in Ethiopia’s capital.
“(The government) may be weak, and it is weak. But to perpetuate the idea that it is a civil conflict for political reasons is very easy. Piracy has been very helpful in drawing attention to the money side of this crisis.”
The nation has been torn by conflict since 1991 when warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then fought each other. Since the start of 2007, some 17,714 civilians have been killed and almost 30,000 wounded, according to the Elman group.