MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — African Union peacekeepers who launched an offensive seven weeks ago have expanded their control of Mogadishu to around half the Somali capital. They've gotten so close to Islamic insurgents that the soldiers can hear them cock their rifles before counterattacks.
But the campaign has come at a dear cost. Officials tell The Associated Press that more than 50 peacekeepers have been killed, along with an unknown number of Somali dead.
The casualty rate is so high that the AU has not announced it, saying that is the responsibility of Uganda and Burundi, the two countries that currently contribute troops to the mission that is shoring up the weak U.N.-backed government.
Somali politicians hope a stronger military posture might help bring elements of the insurgency to the negotiating table. But Western diplomats say the government can't manage even its existing alliances.
Somalia has been mired in violence since 1991, when clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. In recent years, an Islamist insurgency called al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida, has taken control over broad areas of southern Somalia. It also controlled most of the capital — until the offensive began.
In the single heaviest assault since the AU peacekeeping mission began three years ago, soldiers took two key positions in Mogadishu — the former defense ministry and a former milk factory — when the offensive began on Feb. 23.
"I climbed through a hole that had been blown in the wall. All the time they were shooting at us," Pvt. Jean Minani, who was in the first wave of the dawn assault on Somalia's former defense ministry, said in an interview with AP. When Burundian soldiers took over the former defense ministry, known as Gashandiga, they clambered over walls on the shoulders of their comrades while under heavy fire.
After securing the compound, they had to resupply by foot, under fire, for days until a new path for armored vehicles was sliced through thorn bushes. Dozens of troops were killed as they tried to bring in food, water and ammunition while exposed to militant gunfire.
The new AU positions overlook a key insurgent base and Bakara market, Mogadishu's commercial center. Taxes from the market are an important insurgent revenue stream, and the government is keen to bring them under its control.
But al-Shabab is not surrendering ground easily.
"It took us about a week to get from this house to that house," said Lt. Simon Okiria, smiling as he pointed 20 yards (meters) from one ruined structure to another. The walls of one building are almost completely destroyed after being blasted with rockets. In the other, a dead fighter lies buried under a pile of rubble.
Now al-Shabab fighters are within rock-throwing distance of AU positions.
"Even when they are praying we could hear. Even when they are cocking their AK," said Okiria.
When the insurgents want to know whether it's worth lobbing a grenade over a wall, they first throw a stone and listen for movement.
Prime Minster Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed said the government could take over the entire capital if it is allowed to stay another year after its mandate expires in just four months. But the U.N. representative to Somalia says a new government must be installed in August.
In conjunction with the offensive in the capital, other militias simultaneously attacked insurgent-held towns in the south and east of Somalia, although the government is not directing those efforts.
Mohamed said a change in government would create political instability that would halt the momentum gained by the offensive.
He also worries that the country is fracturing, and that the international community is abetting this.
On April 3, Somali politicians announced the creation of a new state called Azania, bringing the total number of new states to more than 10. Kenya, Somalia's neighbor to the south and west, supports the new administration in Azania because it creates a buffer zone.
Somalia's interim charter allows for new states. In 1991, inhabitants of northern Somalia formed their own administration called Somaliland, which is independent from Mogadishu but does not have international recognition. In 1998, residents of the northeast created the semiautonomous region of Puntland.
"We have to make sure this government is inclusive," Mohamed said in an interview. "But it's not helpful when the international community treats regional actors like separate governments."
While politicians wrangle over how long the government will stay in power, AU soldiers sweat under the sun filling sandbags and plotting their next move, and fending off daily counterattacks.
"Al-Shabab has not taken a single position from us," said AU force commander Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, who will get 3,000 more troops in the next few months.
In the city's south, Ugandan forces are fighting house-to-house with insurgents who dug tunnel and trench systems to allow them to move between buildings unseen.
Soldiers say an informant told them that a colonel from the neighboring country of Eritrea is responsible for directing the fortifications. Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia support opposite sides in Somalia.
The European Union and the U.S. have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the 9,000-strong AU force, fearing that if al-Shabab seizes the country, the failed state could be used as a training ground for attacks on the West.
(Photo: AP Photo/Katharine Houreld)