, MOGADISHU, July 13 – Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Sunday hailed a "clear victory" over Islamist rebels in a months-long battle to gain control of the capital, as the latest clashes left at least 21 dead.
At least 18 of those killed in the heavy fighting, as the government attacked rebel positions in the Abdiasis neighbourhood of northern Mogadishu, were civilians.
Sharif said the operation had dealt a heavy blow to the militants in long-running efforts to win control of the conflict-ravaged city.
"You can see government forces are today in control of most areas that were being fought over in the capital," he told reporters Sunday.
"This is a clear victory over the rebels."
Battles for control of Mogadishu’s districts have become increasingly focused on strategic points, such as police stations, but often both sides have been unable to declare a decisive victory.
Sharif is fighting to end an 18-year-old conflict in Somalia against a fierce insurgency led by Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab armed group and the more political Hezb al-Islam.
The hardline Islamists control much of the country.
Paramedics, police and government forces said the fighting Sunday spread across several districts of the city and claimed many lives.
"The ambulances collected 75 injured civilians and 14 dead bodies of civilians," Ali Muse, the head of the city’s ambulance service, told AFP.
"Some of them were killed by mortar and artillery shells and others by crossfire."
Colonel Mohamed Farah, commander of the government forces, told AFP: "Heavy artillery shells and crossfire left around 14 civilians dead around neighbourhoods in northern Mogadishu where the fighting spread."
Earlier Sunday, witnesses, hospital sources and police said the clashes had killed seven people: two government soldiers, one fighter, and four civilians.
"We are advancing in on their last positions in northern Mogadishu and several of their dead lay in the streets this morning," Somali police officer Abdulahi Duale told AFP.
One witness said African Union tanks fought the militants alongside government troops but Sharif denied this.
Mohamed Hashi Gurey, who lives in the Abdiasis neighbourhood, said two African Union tanks had been involved in the fighting.
"The tanks were firing shells at the rebels near (a hotel) and they advanced in onto the Islamists’ strongholds," he said.
The African Union has deployed 4,300 peacekeepers to Somalia.
But the president said: "We have no information indicating African Union soldiers took part in the battle.
"It is the Somali government alone who is responsible for cracking down" on the insurgents, he added.
The clashes come after fighting on Saturday killed at least 10 people, mostly militants, in northern Mogadishu.
Hardline Islamists launched their latest offensive against the internationally backed administration of Sharif on May 7. Government forces began their counter-offensive on May 22.
More than 200,000 people have been displaced in the past two months, while hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed and wounded, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Shebab militia, the main force fighting to oust Sharif, have imposed strict sharia, or Islamic law in areas under their control.
Last month Shebab militiamen chopped off the right hand and left foot of four people found guilty of theft by their court in Mogadishu.