MOGADISHU, Somalia – Frightened Somalis stacked household goods on carts pulled by donkeys and fled the heaviest fighting the capital has seen in almost a year Friday, after hundreds of heavily armed insurgents moved into an area this week previously controlled by government soldiers.
The battles that have killed more than 50 people could foreshadow a violent spring in Mogadishu, as government troops prepare to launch a true offensive against Islamist insurgents who the U.S. says are linked to al-Qaida.
Mogadishu's mayor warned residents to flee, but those abandoning the violence may be moving into arid areas of the lawless Horn of Africa nation where they will find little to eat. Some 3.7 million people in Somalia — nearly half of the population — already need aid.
"The ongoing fighting is not part of our planned major offensive, but there is the possibility that it can follow. We urge the civilians to flee from the battle zones," said Abdurisaq Mohamed Nor. "This time your suffering will not last much longer. We will finish the rebels off."
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 onto our residences," Da'ud said. "We had to walk through the danger to escape."
Fighting erupted in Mogadishu for the third straight day Friday as government-backed troops shelled the front lines of militants trying to advance into government-held territory.
Hundreds of heavily armed fighters from Somalia's most dangerous insurgent group, al-Shabab, moved through northern Mogadishu in 10 gun-mounted vehicles after seizing the area from government soldiers on Wednesday, said an eyewitness in the neighborhood, Abdimalik Sheikh.
The fighters advanced to as close as a mile (2 kilometers) from the government-held area on Thursday, but have since been pushed back several blocks.
TV images showed dozens of masked insurgents who carried spare ammunition around their waist firing machine guns. Some wore blue flack jackets and helmets, possibly stolen from U.N. offices in southern Somalia that were ransacked by insurgents last year. Many of the fighters carry rocket-propelled grenades.
The African Union this week began flying in 1,700 Ugandan peacekeepers, a Nairobi-based security official said. About 850 Ugandans are leaving because they are at the end of their rotation. But the 850 extra troops could offer vital support to an offensive. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. AU officials were not available for comment.
Residents fleeing the city said many of their relatives and neighbors are trapped in the war zone. An Associated Press photo showed red couches piled high on a wooden, donkey-pulled cart as two Somalis helped propel the cart forward.
"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.
The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that 33,000 residents of Mogadishu have fled their homes since February because of fighting. A spokesman in Geneva for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Andrej Mahecic, said UNHCR was especially concerned about the 8,000 people who have no way to get out of Mogadishu and remain displaced within it.
Those remaining in Mogadishu 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. Families fleeing into the countryside may find nothing to eat.
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.
"The government soldiers often fire toward the direction the attack is coming from, sometimes into residential areas away from the battle zones. That is when we the civilians suffer," said a resident, Asha Omar.
Nor, the mayor, 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.
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.
The weak, U.N.-backed 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. Somalia has not had a functioning government since the overthrow of a socialist dictator in 1991.
Associated Press Writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya, and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.