, MOGADISHU, Jan 29 – Heavy fighting in Mogadishu on Friday between African peacekeepers and Al Qaeda-linked Somali insurgents killed at least nine people, mainly civilians, witnesses and medics said.
The clashes in the war-ravaged city marred plans to celebrate the first anniversary of the election of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who was seen as Somalia\’s best chance for peace in years when he came to power.
The latest attack on his government and the peacekeepers protecting his fragile administration was claimed by the Shebab, a hardline Islamist group that launched a bruising military offensive in May 2009 aimed at toppling him.
Artillery exchanges and automatic weapons fire broke out around 2:00 am (2300 GMT Thursday) and continued through the night. After dying down a little the violence resumed in full intensity at dawn.
"Around seven civilians died in the clashes, including women and children. Most of them were killed by mortar shells and stray bullets," Abdi Adan, an eyewitness, told AFP.
The fighting was concentrated around the strategic K4 junction halfway between the Somali capital\’s airport and the port, on the edge of an area controlled by the African Union peacekeeping mission (Amisom).
"Four civilians died in Wardhigley district and three others were killed in Holwadag and Bakara area. It was the worst fighting we have seen recently," Mohamoud Ahmed, another local resident, said.
"Kilometre Four" (K4) in southeastern Mogadishu is where the airport road meets several other key thoroughfares and is a major flashpoint in the war-ravaged coastal city.
Civilians living in the densely-populated neighbourhoods clamped between Amisom-protected areas and the strongholds of the Shebab Islamist insurgents are often caught in the crossfire.
"We have collected around 22 injured from several locations in Mogadishu and several people others have died," Ali Musa, head of Mogadishu\’s ambulance services, told AFP.
"I don\’t have the full figures but I know that three of the dead are a mother and her two children," he said.
The Shebab, whose leader late last year proclaimed his allegiance to Al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the shelling.
"Our holy warriors launched a fierce offensive on several locations in Mogadishu where the apostate militias and their Christian backers were stationed," the Shebab said.
They were 0referring to government troops, who they accuse of being puppets of the West, and to Amisom\’s Ugandan and Burundian troops, who they routinely describe as crusaders bent on introducing Christianity to Muslim Somalia.
In the statement, the Shebab admitted to two deaths among their ranks.
Somali government officials were not able to provide more details on the casualties.
"The violent elements attacked government positions overnight, firing mortar rounds and machine guns. The government forces defeated them," police spokesman Abdullahi Hassan Barisse simply told reporters.
On January 30 last year, Somali MPs gathered in Djibouti to elect a new president and Sharif was declared the winner the next day.
Officials had been preparing for celebrations due to take place Friday in the presidential compound\’s newly-renovated theatre, including poetry readings, dancing and music.