, MOGADISHU, September 24 – Heavy fighting between Somali insurgents and African Union forces erupted late Tuesday in southern Mogadishu, leaving at least seven civilians dead, witnesses said.
"Heavy artillery shells hit a house and killed four civilians. Several others were wounded here in Taleh (district)," said Abdullahi Mohamed, a resident.
Another resident Ahmed Abdiweli said a stray mortar killed at least three people in another southern neighbourhood that is one of the most volatile areas in the seaside capital.
"Mortar shells fired by the African Union forces landed in Tokyo area and killed three civilians," Abdiweli told AFP.
"This is the heaviest fighting ever since the AU deployed. I have seen the African Union forces using tanks," added Farah Hassan, a resident.
"I have seen many civilians crowded in minibuses (leaving the battle zone) and there was no access to hospital for the wounded in the whole neighbourhood," he added.
Taleh residents told AFP that the shelling shattered many residential houses and set on fire shops.
But the full number of fatalities was not available late Tuesday because of heavy fighting and darkness.
The AU deployed troops in March 2007 to help President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed control the nation, but the Islamists, although driven from power, have mounted persistent resistance.
The latest fighting comes a day after clashes between Islamists and Somali forces, backed by Ethiopian and AU troops, killed at least 29 civilians and left dozens wounded.
Meanwhile, hundreds of terrified Somalis aboard trucks and others on foot filed out of Mogadishu on Tuesday fearing a fresh escalation of clashes in the seaside capital that has been the epicentre of factional fighting for nearly two decades.
"I believe staying in Mogadishu is… taking a risk because many civilians died yesterday and warring sides are still sharpening their swords for fresh attacks," said Shamso Mohamed Ali, a mother of two.
Islamist militants, known as the Shebab, also vowed to intensify attacks against African peacekeepers, whom they blame for the latest civilian deaths.
"We are going to double our attacks against the African Union forces. The only option they have is to leave our country," Shebab spokesman Sheikh Muktar Robow told AFP.
Ethiopian troops intervened to prop up the feeble Somali transitional government at the end of 2006 and eventually drove the Islamists from much of the country’s southern and central regions, where they had established Sharia law.
Since then, the Islamists have killed numerous government officials and vowed to fight until the Ethiopians, whom they regard as occupiers, withdraw from the nation of up to 10 million.
Somalia plunged into civil war after the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre, setting off a deadly power struggle that has defied numerous attempts to restore a functional government.
The AU has about 3,000 peacekeepers in Mogadishu, short of some 8,000 troops it pledged to send into Somalia, a country that is on the throes of a humanitarian crisis.
The conflict and recurrent drought has currently left at least 3.2 million people in need of humanitarian support.