Islamistslaunched multiple attacks on government bases and African Unionpeacekeeping troops and at least 19 people, including women andchildren, were killed in the heaviest fighting in a day seen inSomalia's capital in months.
Friday's battle came two days beforePresident Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed marks his first year in power andunderscored that his goal of ending violence in a nation shattered bynearly two decades of war remains as elusive as ever.
More than30 people were wounded in the hours-long fighting, said Ali Muse, thehead of the ambulance service in Mogadishu. Residents cowered in theirhomes, unable to venture out as the warring sides pounded each otherwith artillery, mortars and machine guns.
Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage,a spokesman for the insurgent al-Shabab group, said the early morningattacks were aimed at pre-empting an anticipated offensive against theIslamist militia, which controls much of southern regions, most of thecapital and some central regions.
Rage said two fightersal-Shabab fighters were killed. Barigye Bahoku, spokesman for the AUpeacekeepers, said one of the force's 5,100 soldiers was injured. Musesaid women and children were among those killed but didn't know howmany.
Somali police spokesman Col. Abdullahi Hassan Barise said the insurgent attack was beaten back.
Aftera lull throughout the day, fighting resumed for about 30 minutes Fridayevening. Gunshots could be heard in the southern part of Mogadishu.
AhmedHassan said mortar shells hit the homes of his neighbors, killing fourof them. Hassan said he and other men moved the bodies away from thewreckage to another house nearby. He also said there were five peoplewounded, but they could not take them to a hospital because it wasnight and it wasn't safe to move around.
When Ahmed was sworn inon Jan. 31, 2009, world leaders touted his government as the "bestoption" for Somalia. At the time, Ahmed was co-leader of an Islamicinsurgency and there was hope he and his supporters would be able todraw in more of the Islamists and help stabilize the capital, which hasbeen the epicenter of the Somali conflict.
Foreign governments inApril pledged more than $250 million in money and resources forSomalia's fledgling security forces, but only a third has beendelivered.
Ahmed has been unable to ride a groundswell of supportto put pressure on the insurgents and hasn't established a nationalsecurity force capable of defeating them, analysts say. Al-Shabab,which the US State Department has designated as a terroristorganization with links to al-Qaida, and its Islamic Party ally strikegovernment forces and installations and AU bases almost at will.
"The key problem facing Ahmed's government is the lack of a reliable force," said Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group.
Thecurrent army and police force has a reputation for corruption, withmembers even setting up extortion checkpoints in government-controlledareas. They refuse to allow cars and people to pass without them payinga fee — a throwback to the days when Mogadishu was divided amongwarlords whose militiaman extorted money at checkpoints.
Ahmed'sgovernment can't pay its own security forces regular salaries becausedonors have been slow to release money, but when money does come inofficials allegedly pad the payroll with nonexistent personnel.
Abdi said the government must create a highly trained, highly motivated force with enough resources and regular salaries.
Somalia's humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, has gotten worse.
Thenumber of Somalis who need humanitarian aid has swelled from 1.8million in January 2008 to 3.6 million today even as the lack ofsecurity, particularly in southern Somalia, has forced many aidagencies to suspend operations. Earlier this month, the UN foodagency suspended distribution of desperately needed aid because ofattacks on its staff.