MOGADISHU, April 27 (Reuters) - More peacekeepers must be sent urgently to Mogadishu to avert a tragedy after nine days of fighting between allied Somali-Ethiopian troops and insurgents, the head of the African Union (AU) said on Friday.
Speaking in Uganda, which has sent about 1,500 troops as the vanguard of a proposed 8,000-strong AU force, Alpha Omar Konare, the chairman of the AU Commission, said the main responsibility for security in Somalia lay with the continent's leaders.
"If we do not deploy troops soon, it will be disaster and a tragedy for Africa," he told reporters. "For several weeks now, we have not got the troops promised and we are paying for that."
Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and Burundi had said they would send soldiers, but as with its previous peacekeeping foray in Sudan's Darfur region, the AU faces a shortage of money and equipment.
Occasional bursts of gunfire were heard in Mogadishu on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi declared major gains in his government's efforts to stamp out resistance by Islamist fighters, foreign jihadists and some clan militia.
Despite Gedi's words, many Somalis -- undergoing a refugee exodus worse than Iraq in recent months -- remained sceptical.
Taking advantage of a lull in the fighting, uniformed gunmen plundered a Coca Cola plant in the seaside city, commandeering a dozen trucks to haul away computers and sacks of sugar.
The overnight looting spree took place after the plant was shelled, local Coca Cola manager Bashir Mohamed Araye said.
There was no respite for medical workers struggling with little or no supplies to patch up the wounded, many ferried to overflowing hospitals in wheelbarrows and donkey carts.
WORSE THAN IRAQ, DARFUR
Trapped by fighting, several women gave birth in an improvised maternity ward -- a grass hut under a tree.
The Ugandan soldiers have so far been confined to guarding sites such as the presidential palace, air and sea ports. One was killed by a mortar bomb at the end of March.
The United Nations has accused all sides in the conflict of breaking humanitarian law by indiscriminately firing on civilian areas in Mogadishu. U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said the rate of displacement in Somalia over the past three months was worse than Iraq in the same period.
More than 365,000 people have fled the city since February, more than a third of its one million population.
"In that one time frame, more people have been displaced inside Somalia than any place else in the world and that includes Iraq, Darfur...and Sri Lanka," she told the BBC.
The United Nations said refugees were being charged for sitting in the shade of trees by some landowners along the road from Mogadishu to Afgooye, 30 km (19 miles) to the west.
U.N. children's agency UNICEF "deplored" on Friday the shelling of the SOS hospital in the capital. It said fighting was keeping it from reaching hundreds of civilians there.
The United States and European Union have criticised Gedi's government and Ethiopia's military for obstructing aid. Somali and Ethiopian officials angrily dismissed those allegations.
The European Union made public a letter from aid chief Louis Michel to Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf this week complaining about mistreatment of refugees, who he said were subject to "systematic looting, extortion and rape by uniformed troops". (Additional reporting by Barbara Among in Kampala and Laura MacInnis in Geneva)