MOGADISHU, April 25 (Reuters) - Shelling and machine-gun fire shook the Somali capital Mogadishu on Wednesday for an eighth day as residents continued to flee a government offensive to crush Islamist insurgents and clan militia.
Residents said Wednesday's fighting was lighter than previous days, as allied Somali-Ethiopian forces take on rebels frustrating the interim government's bid to restore central rule in the Horn of Africa nation for the first time in 16 years.
"The shelling is still going on, but it is less heavy than yesterday. But it is still too dangerous to venture out," said one resident who asked not to be named.
Local residents and human rights workers say nearly 300 people have been killed in a week of fighting that has focused on an Islamist stronghold in the north of the city.
As the battles intensified on Tuesday, a car bomb killed four civilians in central Mogadishu -- decapitating one of them -- and a suicide attacker struck at Ethiopian troops at a base in a small farming town on the western outskirts of the capital.
An Islamist militant group claimed responsibility for both.
The group, calling itself the Young Mujahideen Movement in Somalia, said a Kenyan member named Othman Otibo carried out the suicide bombing at an Ethiopian military base in Afgooye, a small town 30 km (19 miles) west of Mogadishu.
"Following this blessed martyrdom operation, a seven-minute clash broke out between the victorious lions of unification (Islam) and the remnants of the...defeated Ethiopians," it said in an Internet statement posted on Wednesday.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
But it was on a Web site used by Islamist militants in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The United States, which diplomats say gave tacit backing to Ethiopia's involvement in Somalia, has urged all sides to reach a truce, expressing concern about a growing humanitarian crisis.
On Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister said operations to defeat Islamist hardliners were going well, and that he expected it would take no more than "a week or two" to clear the city.
He disputed the casualty figures, saying "so-called" rights groups were fronts for the Islamists.
According to the United Nations, more than 321,000 people have fled Mogadishu in recent weeks, many sleeping in the open or under trees. It has warned of a looming health disaster.
The U.N. food agency says it has struck a deal to get better access to the homeless and hungry after one of its convoys was turned back earlier this month while en route from the city.
- Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi in Dubai
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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