* Fears of more clashes in capital
By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, Dec 30 (Reuters) - A fall in street battles in the capital Mogadishu led to significantly fewer civilians being killed in Somalia this year, a human rights group said on Wednesday.
The Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation said 1,739 civilians were killed in fighting in Somalia this year, down from 7,574 in 2008 and 8,636 in 2007.
"The death toll was lower this year because there was no serious face-to-face fighting in Mogadishu, but beheadings and the exchange of shells in a hit-and-run war," said Ali Yasin Gedi, Elman's vice chairman.
Islamists launched an insurgency at the start of 2007 to drive out Ethiopian troops propping up the Western-backed government in the Horn of Africa nation. There were heavy clashes in Mogadishu and other parts of southern and central Somalia until the Ethiopians left at the start of this year.
A former Islamist rebel, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was elected president in January. While there were hopes he would be able to reconcile with the insurgents he has made little headway and the government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu.
Western security agencies say the country has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the impoverished region and beyond.
But there have been fewer full-blown clashes between government troops and insurgents in the capital during 2009.
Rebels camped in densely populated parts of Mogadishu have focused more on attacking government targets and African Union (AU) peacekeepers with suicide bombs and mortar shells.
"Most of the casualties took place in Mogadishu where AU and the government on one side and the rebels exchanged shells," Gedi said.
He said at least 4,911 civilians were wounded and some 3,900 families were displaced by clashes this year, adding to what is already one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
While the 2009 civilian death toll was lower than the previous two years, Mogadishu residents fear there could be a resurgence of violence soon.
The government said this month it was planning to drive the insurgent groups out of the capital after a suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony killed three ministers.
Residents said the rebel group al Shabaab -- which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy in Somalia -- has been forcibly recruiting youths in readiness for an attack.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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