Fresh fighting erupts in Somalia as mass exodus continues

NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali government soldiers on Monday mounted a door-to-door search of a major marketplace in Mogadishu in search of Islamist insurgents as shell-shocked residents continued a massive exodus from the Somali capital.

The operation by Somali forces and their U.S.-backed Ethiopian allies in the bullet-riddled Bakara market — a reputed insurgent hideout — follows some of the deadliest fighting in Mogadishu in months, with at least 60 people killed since Thursday. The market had been virtually emptied of people until Somali officials ordered storeowners to return on Monday and open their stalls for security checks.

More than 114,000 people fled their homes over the past two weeks, according to United Nations estimates released on Friday. Humanitarian officials said that many more fled over the weekend after Islamists ambushed a convoy of Ethiopian troops and dragged the dead body of a soldier through the streets, triggering a spasm of Ethiopian reprisal attacks.

"Somalia's worst displacement ever took place in the last few days," said an official with a Western aid agency in Mogadishu who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "Nearly four districts of the city have been totally cleared out."

Some 850,000 Somalis — perhaps one in six — are displaced within their own country, the most in years. Fewer than 10 percent of them are receiving any humanitarian aid, and most live in desperate conditions in makeshift refugee encampments scattered around Mogadishu's outskirts.

The latest turmoil is producing a ghastly conclusion to an apocalyptic year, even for Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government in 16 years.

Last December, Ethiopian forces supported by the American military invaded neighboring Somalia to oust a hard-line Islamist regime that U.S. officials claimed was linked to al Qaida. Since then, the Ethiopians have faced stubborn resistance from fighters loyal to the Islamists, who've proved adept at ambushes and remote-controlled bombings.

Ethiopia's campaign has become an open-ended military intervention besieged by a stubborn insurgency, and Ethiopians recently responded by sending in a surge of reinforcement troops. Human rights groups charge that the Ethiopian forces are carelessly killing civilians.

Some Mogadishu residents said that the Ethiopians retaliated brutally to last week's fatal ambush, fanning out across the city in tanks on Thursday and spraying neighborhoods with bullets. Bodies lay in the streets overnight, where they bled to death as frightened residents barricaded themselves in their homes, witnesses said.

"We collected 16 bodies, mostly elderly people, women and children. They were shot in the heads," said Daud Soleyman, a resident of the Hamar Jadid neighborhood who described the scene the morning after the Ethiopian reprisals. Ethiopian forces returned that morning and again opened fire, Soleyman said, and it took hours to collect all the bodies.

Such tactics seem certain to fuel the insurgency.

"The Ethiopians are becoming impatient, meaning that they now retaliate indiscriminately," said the Western aid official. "That, of course, leads to more resistance."

The African Union has deployed a vanguard force of 1,600 peacekeepers, but they've been confined to Mogadishu's airport and seaport. No reinforcements appear to be forthcoming, and last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the situation was too chaotic to send in U.N. forces.

The previous U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, in the early 1990s, had disastrous results, including a firefight that killed 18 U.S. servicemen in 1993 and was portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

Bush administration envoys have called for Somalia's transitional government to make peace with its opponents, but the Pentagon, which has long worried about Somalia becoming a haven for terrorists, supports Ethiopia's presence in the country.

On Monday, a senior official of the European Union, the leading American diplomatic partner on Somalia, said that the Bush administration was sending conflicting signals.

"Sometimes we are surprised" by remarks made by U.S. officials, said Georges-Marc Andre, the European special envoy to Somalia. "There are some things that our American partners do not tell us directly."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hamsa Omar contributed from Mogadishu.)