Somalia

About 90 die in Somalia militia battles

MOGADISHU, March 24 (Reuters) - Heavy fighting between rival Somali militia linked to Islamic courts and a new "anti-terror" alliance has killed about 90 people in the last three days in the capital, Mogadishu, residents and local radio said on Friday.
Hundreds of Somalis have fled the capital and businesses have closed during the latest flare-up between fighters loyal to the powerful courts and warlords linked to a recently formed political group called the Mogadishu Anti-Terrorism Coalition.

In what Somalis say is the worst fighting in their lawless Horn of Africa country for years, 37 people also died in clashes between the two sides last month.

The Voice of Democracy FM radio station said that 29 people had been killed on Friday alone.

"Civilians including women and children are shifting to safer areas in the south while others have left the capital," the radio quoted residents as saying.

Warlords have dominated the nation of 10 million since the ousting of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

"Today we've lost five people shot dead," a militia leader on the Islamist side told Reuters by telephone as a volley of shots could be heard in the background.

"And on the other side, they've lost six who were burned in a technical," he added. Technicals -- battle wagons made from adapted pickup trucks -- are the favoured mobile weapon of Somali militias who mount machine guns on the back.

Some of those killed were civilians.

FIGHTING CONTINUES

Reuters TV footage showed relatives crowding into a Mogadishu hospital, where victims lay with head and chest wounds. One unconscious baby had wounds to his head, arm and stomach. A fighter with a chest wound coughed weakly.

Technicals crammed with fighters roamed Mogadishu's streets and sand dunes near the sea, as heavy gunfire rattled out.

"It's the Mogadishu anti-terrorism coalition causing this war," the Islamic militia leader said.

"This group said they were fighting against terrorists but it is innocent people who are perishing here. We will continue fighting until we save ourselves."

Members of the anti-terror group could not be contacted.

Local Islamists say the group was set up at the start of the year with the support and funding of the United States, which fears Somalia could be a safe haven for Muslim extremists.

The U.S. State Department had no comment on the accusations. But it provided a general statement on the situation in Somalia which said, "The United States shares the concerns of a majority of the Somali people regarding the presence of foreign terrorists."

"The United States is also concerned that a small number of Somalis may be providing a safe-haven for these foreign terrorists inside Somalia, which undermines the efforts of those seeking to establish peace in Somalia and threatens the stability of the Horn of Africa," the statement added.

In the 14th attempt to restore normal government to Somalia, an interim administration set up in Kenya returned last year but has been unable to impose authority. It remains based in Jowhar, outside the capital, because of security fears.

Renewed hope for peace came as the new Somali parliament held its first session on home soil last month, but the fighting in Mogadishu has underlined how tough it will be to end violence in a nation where warlords have ruled for 15 years. (Additional reporting by Mohamed Ali Bile in Baidoa and Caroline Drees in Washington)

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