MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Violence in Mogadishu killed at least 24 people Wednesday, and thousands of Somalis fled the capital fearing a government offensive against rebels.
Hardline Islamist insurgents fired mortar shells at the Villa Somalia presidential palace, prompting African Union (AU) guards to respond with a deafening barrage of artillery. At least 16 people died in the bombardment, medical officials said.
The failed Horn of Africa state has had no effective central government for 19 years and the U.N.-backed administration of President Sheikh Ahmed Sharif controls just parts of the city.
“The death toll may rise because we have not yet reached some of the districts where shells also landed,” Ali Muse, coordinator of the city’s ambulance service, told Reuters.
A nurse at Medina Hospital said at least 40 wounded people had been rushed there, five of whom died of their injuries.
Separately, a gunbattle after an argument between police and soldiers at the Mogadishu police academy killed eight people. Witnesses said at least one civilian also died in the crossfire.
Western security agencies say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who use it to plot attacks across the region and beyond. Fighting there has killed at least 21,000 people since the start of 2007.
Witnesses said thousands of residents were leaving the bomb-shattered capital, fearing the start of a government offensive that has been threatened for weeks.
Farhiya Ismael, a mother-of-six, fled north Mogadishu’s Livestock Market district for nearby Elasha two days ago.
She said many fighters from the al Shabaab rebel group, which professes its loyalty to al Qaeda, had entered the capital from one of their bases in the southern port of Kismayu.
“Now it is time to flee this area again,” she told Reuters by telephone. “Last night, AMISOM (AU peacekeepers) shelled the al Shabaab members who had just passed us here and we could not sleep because of panic from the shells.”
Thousands of Somalis have been trained in Kenya and are ready to join the expected government offensive.
For weeks, Ahmed’s administration has been promising to launch an offensive against al Shabaab and another rebel group, Hizbul Islam, which both want to impose a harsh version of sharia law. The other part of the Somali government’s plan to drive back the insurgents includes beefing up AMISOM.
Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Randy Fabi