MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali government forces drove Islamist insurgents from two districts of the capital on Tuesday in another day of heavy fighting that killed dozens of people, residents and officials said.
Hardline rebels with links to al Qaeda stepped up attacks in Mogadishu in early May and government forces have been battling to recapture lost ground. Fighting has killed more than 200 people since then and nearly 70,000 residents have fled.
“We have swept them from the area. Madina and Dharkenley districts are now in our hands,” Abdiqadir Odweyne, a senior police officer, told Reuters.
Abdifatah Shaweye, deputy governor of Mogadishu, told Reuters government forces had also ousted the insurgents from a police station in Yaqshid district in the north of the capital.
The battle for Mogadishu is the stiffest test yet for new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former Islamist rebel who joined a U.N.-brokered peace process last year and was elected by parliament in January.
Advances by the insurgent group al Shabaab and allies have been worrying Western powers and neighbors as they fear the Islamist rebels may use Somalia as a base to destabilize the region’s two biggest economies, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The gains by pro-government forces came after a second day of heavy battles in the capital and residents emerged from their homes on Tuesday to survey the damage.
“I just came out of my house now. Fighting was fierce,” said Mohamed Ali, who lives in Dharkenley. “Government forces are everywhere and we do not see any opposition fighters.”
Residents reported seeing dozens of bodies in the streets of the capital — Islamist insurgents, civilians and policemen. No confirmed death toll was immediately available.
The United Nations’ refugee agency said 10,000 residents had fled Mogadishu since last week, taking the total number of displaced since the upsurge in violence in May to 67,000.
Since the new administration came to power this year, it has struggled to stamp its control on more than a few districts of the capital and some central regions.
In a bid to recapture more territory outside the capital, Internal Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden went to Baladwayne on Tuesday for the first time since taking office.
“Omar Hashi has just arrived. He has just passed the toll street to the town. He is escorted by thousands of troops and has driven toward the center of the town,” resident Ali Haji Mahamud told Reuters from Baladwayne.
Baladwayne is the capital of Hiran region north of Mogadishu and is close to the Ethiopian border.