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Fighting rages in Mogadishu, peacekeeper killed

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Mortar bombs crashed into central Mogadishu on Sunday and Uganda said its first peacekeeper had been killed there as battles pitting Ethiopian and Somali troops against insurgents raged for a fourth day.

An Ethiopian military helicopter hit by insurgents is seen in the skies above Mogadishu, March 30, 2007. REUTERS/Sahal Abdule

Clan leaders fighting alongside Islamist hardliners called for a second truce in as many weeks, but hundreds more Ethiopian soldiers were reported to be arriving in the city and there was no let-up in clashes that have killed scores of civilians.

Bodies lay strewn in dusty streets, too dangerous to collect amid violence that the International Committee of the Red Cross said was the coastal capital’s worst in more than 15 years.

Ethiopian tanks and helicopter gunships pounded insurgent strongholds as Islamist rebels and clan militiamen fired back with machineguns, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Ugandan peacekeepers sent at the head of an African Union (AU) force last month to help Somalia’s interim government restore stability have been caught in the crossfire, pinned down at strategic sites including the air and sea ports.

“Our troops were guarding the presidential compound on Saturday when it was struck by mortars. One of our soldiers was killed,” Ugandan military spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye told Reuters by telephone from Kampala. Five others were injured.

Previous ambushes by insurgents that wounded two Ugandans had already made other African states wary of flying in more men to boost the AU force to its planned strength of 8,000. Burundi, Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria have all pledged to send troops.

A Nigerian army spokesman said its soldiers were ready to go once final details were agreed with the AU. He gave no date.

Fighting broke out on Sunday with a barrage of artillery shells striking residential neighbourhoods around the main football stadium -- the site of some of the heaviest exchanges since the Ethiopian offensive was launched on Thursday.

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Hundreds of Ethiopian reinforcements drove into the city on Sunday, passing through the southern outskirts in some 40 trucks, independent Somali broadcaster Shabelle reported.

More had crossed the border from Ethiopia, it added.

The fighting shattered a brief and shaky truce between the Ethiopians and leaders of the city’s dominant clan, the Hawiye.

Hawiye elders issued a statement on Sunday calling for a new cease-fire, for Ethiopian forces to withdraw and for international help burying the dead and treating the wounded.

Security sources said the AU was trying to arrange more talks between the two sides, but faced massive mutual mistrust.

The Hawiye demanded the United Nations, United States, European Union and Arab League urge Ethiopia to stop attacking.

“What is happening in the city is total carnage against the civilians,” a clan spokesman said.

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Heavy shelling continued throughout the day. Hundreds of people have been injured and thousands have fled the city.

Hospitals were overwhelmed, even though most of the wounded were unable to seek help and doctors were also trapped at home.

Ethiopia says it has killed more than 200 “armed remnants” of an Islamic sharia courts movement that it helped the government chase out of Mogadishu over the New Year.

On Friday, insurgents shot down an Ethiopian helicopter gunship with a missile. Several dead Ethiopian soldiers have been dragged through the streets and burnt by mobs.

While Addis Ababa seems determined to finish off the rebels, many experts say the attacks could have the opposite effect, turning Somalis further against their Christian-led neighbour, or drawing in foreign Muslim jihadists.

Despite the fighting, Somalia’s interim government remains confident a reconciliation meeting of elders, politicians and former warlords planned for April 16 will go ahead in the city.

The administration is the 14th attempt to restore central rule in Somalia since 1991, when the Horn of Africa nation slid into anarchy after dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.

Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi and Estelle Shirbon in Abuja