MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Fighting erupted in Somalia's capital for the third straight day Friday in some of the worst violence in nearly a year, as government-backed troops shelled the front lines of rebels trying to advance into government-held territory.
Mogadishu's mayor warned residents to flee the fighting, which is expected to intensify in coming weeks after the government launches a long-awaited offensive against Islamist insurgents.
Emergency officials say at least 50 people have been killed and nearly 150 wounded in fighting in the Somali capital on Wednesday and Thursday. At least two more people were killed in fighting Friday, a resident reported. At least six were wounded, emergency officials said.
Rebels advanced to as close as 1 mile (2 kilometers) from the government-held area on Thursday, but have since been pushed back several blocks.
Mogadishu Mayor Abdurisaq Mohamed Nor told citizens to move at least a couple miles (kilometers) away from battle zones. Residents in Mogadishu are often caught in crossfire or are hit by off-target munitions.
"The ongoing fighting is not part of our planned major offensive, but there is possibility that it can follow, we urge the civilians to flee from the battle zones," said Nor "This time your suffering will not last much longer. We will finish the rebels off."
A resident, Mohamed Abdi Haji, said that about 200 insurgents aboard a dozen gun-mounted vehicles moved into his neighborhood and drove toward the presidential palace. Government soldiers and African Union peacekeepers fired barrages at the militants and forced them to retreat, Haji said.
An Associated Press reporter in Mogadishu said the fighting is the heaviest since last May, when insurgents trying to topple the weak, U.N.-backed government launched massive attacks.
Residents fleeing the city said many of their relatives and neighbors are trapped in the war zone.
"My husband and six of my relatives and some of my neighbors are trapped inside their homes ... by mortars and bullets flying every where," said Dahabo Duhulow, a mother of six.
An Associated Press photo showed red couches piled high on a wooden, donkey-pulled cart as two Somalis helped propel the cart forward.
With his 2-year-old son clasped to his chest, Adow Yusuf Da'ud said that he had walked three hours through dangerous streets to escape the fighting.
"During the day and during the night, the shells were raining down into our residences," Da'ud said. "We had to walk through the danger to escape. my oldest son is still there to take care of the house and the property"
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 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.