MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A suicide bomber blew himself up at an Ethiopian military base and mortars slammed into a Mogadishu market on Thursday, amid battles between troops and Somali insurgents that killed at least 12 civilians.
The suicide attacker drove a 4x4 through the gates of the Ethiopian base in the Somali capital before detonating explosives which set off secondary blasts from munitions nearby, Islamist sources and witnesses said.
“He was a brave man ... he succeeded in his mission,” an Islamist source said.
Although there was no report of other deaths in that attack, witnesses spoke of multiple injuries.
“It was a huge explosion. I saw wounded Ethiopian soldiers being carried away,” said a woman who was passing by the former prison with a donkey that was hurt in the blast.
The insurgents — drawn from the local Hawiye clan and a militant Islamist movement ousted from Mogadishu at the New Year — are fighting the interim government, its Ethiopian army allies and African Union peacekeepers for control of the city.
Four days of ferocious fighting killed 1,000 people at the end of March. A truce since then has failed to prevent sporadic clashes, which have escalated again this week.
Suicide attacks were unheard of in Somalia, whose people are mainly moderate Muslims, until last year when the Islamist movement took over most of the south and isolated the government in the provincial town of Baidoa.
But there have now been a string of such attacks both in Baidoa and Mogadishu. Critics including the United States say the Islamists are closely linked to al Qaeda.
As Ethiopian and Somali government troops fought insurgents across Mogadishu on Thursday, several rockets slammed into the Al Barakah market when it was crowded with shoppers including many women buying milk.
“A lot of women were crying and men were running and pulling people out from under rubble all over the place,” market worker Adan Kulow, who was injured by shrapnel, told Reuters. “I saw about 20 wounded carried away on hand carts.”
Throughout the day, heavy shelling sounded around the coastal capital. Minibuses raced scores of wounded to packed hospitals. Reuters verified 12 civilian deaths but residents said there were probably many more.
“Six consecutive missiles hit. ... There are many wounded,” said Hassan Ibrahim, who drove a minivan full of injured people to Madina Hospital from the central Al Barakah district.
Ethiopian and Somali government troops ousted the Islamist movement — which had Hawiye backing and ruled most of south Somalia for the second half of 2006 — from Mogadishu in a brief war over the New Year.
The interim government, established in Kenya in 2004, is the 14th attempt to set up central rule in Somalia since the Horn of Africa nation slid into warlord-fuelled anarchy with the toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
More than 200,000 people — or a fifth of Mogadishu’s population — have fled since February, and the United Nations warned on Thursday a catastrophe was looming for refugees.
A diarrhea epidemic has already killed more than 400, while cholera has struck hundreds, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche said in Geneva.
The government is pursuing a reconciliation conference in Mogadishu. But its first plan to start a meeting this week failed due to insecurity and infighting.
South of Mogadishu, a land mine blew up an Ethiopian truck on Thursday, locals said. Some people spoke of multiple deaths of soldiers, but Reuters reporters could not confirm that.
Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Nairobi, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva