Ethiopian, Somali troops battle insurgents

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopian forces and Somali government troops fought an intense daylong battle against insurgents in the Somali capital Thursday, leaving at least 15 civilians dead and 30 wounded over the past 48 hours and threatening the safety of U.S.-backed Ugandan peacekeeping troops.

In some of the worst fighting in the past 15 years, Ethiopian forces at the presidential palace and at a military base in the south of Mogadishu fired artillery and mortars at insurgents around the area of the Ramadan hotel, which had been the headquarters of an Islamist government that ruled briefly until Ethiopia overthrew it in December.

The transitional Somali government, which had announced the urban offensive, provided ground forces as well as truck-mounted anti-aircraft and grenade launchers. But it wasn't clear whether they'd captured more territory from the Hawiye clan, which dominates Mogadishu and had close links with the overthrown Council of Islamic Courts government.

Ethiopian officers met clan leaders Thursday during the fighting in a bid to revive a cease-fire that was reached earlier this month, but the meeting broke up over an Ethiopian demand that all militia commanders take part in the talks, a spokesman for the Hawiye elders said.

The Bush administration had provided military and political support for Ethiopia's overthrow of the Islamic Courts movement, charging that the Islamists had given sanctuary to al-Qaida fugitives.

The sound of artillery bombardments and machine-gun fire could be heard throughout the capital from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. The two sides were little more than a mile apart and at times fought house to house.

At least seven civilians were confirmed dead in Thursday's fighting, after eight were killed Wednesday. According to an assessment team set up by leaders of the Somali clans, more than 1,000 civilians were killed in late March.

The numbers are unclear because the fighting has trapped thousands of people in their homes, and authorities have been unable to recover the dead. In parts of Mogadishu, bodies are decomposing on the streets.

None of the military forces would release casualty figures, but they could be substantial.

The latest fighting also threatened the safety of the Ugandan peacekeeping troops, who were sent to Somalia last month as part of an African Union force with strong support from Washington to help stabilize the country until a new government can be elected.

Several hundred of the 1,500 Ugandans are based at the presidential palace, where President Abdullahi Yusuf lives, and their role largely has been reduced to that of spectators of the drama. Ethiopian fighters were firing from the palace area, putting the Ugandans in the crossfire as the insurgents fired back. One Ugandan was killed and five wounded when insurgents fired at the palace earlier this month.

"I don't know who is fighting whom and why," said Capt. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the African Union force. "We don't want to be involved in this."

Hundreds of thousands already have fled this city of 2.4 million, and more fled Thursday. Those who haven't left are staying in their houses, and the streets and markets are deserted.

(Elmi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)