, MOGADISHU, Jun 2 – Heavy fighting broke out on Tuesday in a densely packed slum area of the Somali capital, sending thousands of residents fleeing while a leading aid agency warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Officials and residents said clashes erupted in Dharkinley in southwest Mogadishu around 10:00 am (0700 GMT) when Somali loyalist forces attacked checkpoints manned by hardline Islamists.
Terrified residents in the district largely spared the fighting in recent years, packed whatever they could strap to their backs or load on carts and started flooding out of Dharkinley.
Many headed southwards in the direction of Afgooye, where relief agency Oxfam warned that conditions were not fit for human habitation.
"This morning heavy clashes erupted near Abagedo area, everybody is fleeing for their lives because they (the fighters) are using heavy machineguns and mortar shells," one resident, Mohamed Ibrahim, said.
Colonel Mohamed Hashi, a senior Somali police officer, said the fighting was heaviest in the morning.
"Many people are fleeing the battle zones to avoid the crossfire," Hashi added.
In a report on Tuesday, Oxfam warned that the humanitarian crisis in the war-riven country was reaching catastrophic levels.
"The recent fighting has made the humanitarian crisis in Somalia even worse," said Oxfam’s Hassan Noor. "Tens of thousands are on the move, hundreds of thousands are displaced and more than three million are in dire need of aid," he added.
Oxfam says some 70,000 people have been displaced in the weeks of fighting between hardline Islamic radicals and the forces of the shaky Somali government since May 7.
"War, drought and malnutrition are thrusting Somalia towards even greater catastrophe," said Noor, who had just returned from Afgooye a few kilometres (miles) south of the capital.
Dharkinley has been one of the rare calm districts of Mogadishu in recent years during Somalia’s successive cycles of violence. Until now, the area has sheltered many displaced from the hotbeds.
"This district has been calm in the past years and hosted many people who also fled other neighborhoods, but now the time has come for us to flee too," another resident, Abdi Nure, told AFP.
The interim Somali government launched a counter-offensive on May 22 to try regain control of swathes of the capital captured earlier by the rebels.
"Our forces are gaining ground in the battle," police officer Hashi said.
On Monday, government forces overran a strategic police station controlled by insurgents following fierce fighting in the north of the city on the Indian Ocean coast.
But on Tuesday, the rebels claimed to have seized back Yaqshid police station.
"Our holy warriors took control of the police station and nearby areas, we are still pushing them back," Sheikh Hasan Mahdi, spokesman of the radical Hizb Al-Islamiya, said.
But residents said it was not clear who was in charge of the police station on Tuesday.
Mogadishu has been engulfed since May 7 by fierce fighting between the two sides, killing more than 200 people.
The rebel onslaught is led by the Shebab, an extremist faction accused of links to Al-Qaeda; and Hezb al-Islam, a more political radical group loyal to opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.
They want to topple President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist who came to power in January under a UN-backed deal.
The insurgents confirm receiving support from foreign fighters.
Sharif accuses Eritrea of backing the insurgency and the African Union (AU) wants the United Nations to apply sanctions against Asmara.
A 4,300-strong AU peacekeeping force deployed in parts of Mogadishu over the past two years is struggling to contain the violence.
A lawless country of around 10 million, Somalia has had no effective central authority since former president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, setting off a bloody cycle of clashes.