MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Heavy fighting between Somali insurgents and pro-government troops has killed at least 43 people over two days, as African Union peacekeepers used tanks to help the beleaguered government beat back an insurgent attack, officials said Thursday.
Militants attacking from the north on Wednesday reached to within a mile (2 kilometers) of the presidential place in the heart of the capital, Mogadishu, before African Union peacekeepers in tanks reinforced government troops, residents said.
Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu's ambulance service, said he saw 40 bodies lying in the streets over the two days of fighting Wednesday and Thursday. Nearly 150 were wounded, mostly civilians, he said.
"The fighting was heavier than that of yesterday," said Muse. "Our ambulances are sometimes caught in the crossfire. Our ambulance crews use dangerous streets and they have to dodge mortars and bullets. Sometimes it takes us hours to reach injured civilians and because of that they bleed to death."
Three of the wounded brought in Wednesday died overnight, said Abdi Mahad, a doctor at Medina Hospital.
"A mortar shell has just fallen into the house next to me. We can hear neighbors crying and can see smoke over their building, but I do not know if there is a casualty," Sahra Haji Abdulle said by phone from her home in northern Mogadishu. "We could hardly sleep last night. The sky was lit up by shelling all night. We have nowhere to escape."
More than half of those living in Somalia's seaside capital have fled. Those remaining are mostly too poor to move or fear being attacked as they leave. Compounding their dilemma, an Islamist group issued a series of demands at the beginning of the year that caused the U.N.'s World Food Program to pull out of much of southern Somalia. Soon families fleeing into the countryside may find nothing to eat.
Neither the Islamists or the U.N.-backed government can take and hold enough ground for a decisive victory.
The government is supported by around 5,300 African Union peacekeepers, whose tanks and armored vehicles help them to outgun the insurgents. The insurgents favor mobile hit-and-run attacks, using snipers and mortar fire to make it hard for the government's poorly trained and irregularly paid soldiers to hold their position.
The peacekeepers used tanks to help government forces when the insurgents got within a mile of the presidential palace, said resident Omar Salad. Other residents confirmed his account.
The insurgents, the government and the peacekeepers have all been criticized by human rights groups for indiscriminately firing into and shelling residential neighborhoods. But the criticism has had little effect.
"The rebels launched the attack and we had a right to defend. We fended them off and killed many of them, thank God," said Yusuf Mohamed Siyad, Somalia state minister for defense.
"We have forced our enemy to taste the pain of our weapons," said a spokesman for the Islamist al-Shabab militia, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage.
The government hopes to break the stalemate with an upcoming offensive, but its launch has been delayed by problems that include inadequate equipment and training. There has been a surge in fighting since the beginning of the year, when the offensive was first being publicly discussed.
Even if the government push succeeds, few Somalis trust an administration that has failed to deliver even a semblance of services or security more than a year after it took power.
The arid Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government since the overthrow of a socialist dictator in 1991. Its civil war, which began into clan warfare, has morphed in recent years into a fight between an administration favored by the international community and an Islamist insurgency backed by hundreds of newly arrived foreign fighters.
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