Fierce fighting continues in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopian forces backing Somalia's weak transitional government shelled anti-government insurgents in the capital for the fifth straight day on Monday, adding to the death and destruction and sending hundreds more families fleeing from the city.

Human rights organizations and health officials said 220 civilians were confirmed dead and 300 have been wounded since Thursday.

The shelling has been so intense that families have been unable to bring the wounded to hospitals or to collect those who died. In some parts of the city, decomposing corpses litter the streets.

Entire city blocks have been emptied in the fighting, as more than 320,000 people have fled Mogadishu since February.

Worse may be yet to come. Salad Ali Jelle, the Somali deputy defense minister, called on residents living in areas where insurgents are concentrated to evacuate their homes immediately, warning that they're about to come under attack. "People in Mogadishu should leave their homes near the strongholds of terrorists," he said. "We will crack down on insurgents and terrorists very soon."

Ethiopian forces, which the transitional government invited into the country, in late December overthrew an Islamist government that the Bush administration charged had given sanctuary to al-Qaida terrorists. But Ethiopia, an age-old rival to Somalia, has been unable to pacify the capital and has instead stirred some of the country's most powerful clans into all-out resistance.

In the latest fighting, Ethiopian troops based in the presidential palace and at Asluunta, a military base in south Mogadishu, shelled positions of insurgent groups in several neighborhoods of north Mogadishu.

Somalia hasn't had a central government for 16 years since warlords overthrew the nationalist regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, but some observers say the current turmoil is the worst crisis yet.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement on Monday, called for an immediate cease-fire to the hostilities and for talks to resume.

One analyst warned, however, that without a concerted international effort to end the fighting, the situation will be uncontrollable. "The international community seems reluctant" to act, said Ahmed Mohammed Ali, the head of a Mogadishu human rights organization. "It is not fair for the Somali people to be forgotten by the outside world."

In Washington on Monday, a top State Department official expressed concern about the fighting and said the United States was pressing for a cease-fire.

"Absolutely we're concerned about the loss of civilian life," said Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She portrayed the battle as one between the transitional federal government and Ethiopia on one side and pro-Islamist Shabaab insurgents, who have the backing of neighboring Eritrea.

(Elmi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)