, MOGADISHU, May 23 – Somalia\’s Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels attacked the presidential palace in Mogadishu overnight, sparking a battle that left at least 14 civilians dead, officials and witnesses said Sunday.
Government forces backed by African Union troops retaliated to fend off the Islamist insurgents, whose offensive against the presidential compound came as President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was attending a peace conference in Turkey.
The Shebab fighters launched their main attack on the northern Shibis and Bondhere neighbourhoods of the seaside capital late Saturday. After a brief lull, the battle resumed at dawn on Sunday.
"The number of civilians killed during the clashes overnight has reached 11 and it could be higher, because the violent militants using mortars attacked several other positions in southern Mogadishu," Mohamed Ali Idle, a Somali government security official, told AFP.
The victims included five members of the same family who were killed when a mortar shell smashed into their home, several witnesses told AFP.
"The fighting was very heavy here in Bondhere and Shibis. Many people died and I saw five family members who were killed when a mortar round struck their house. Several others were also injured," said Abdirahman Ise, a resident.
"Im also hearing that several other civilians were killed in the crossfire in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately the fighting continued and there was no transport to collect the wounded overnight," he said.
At least three other civilians were killed and 25 wounded as a result of an exchange of mortar fire in the southern neighbourhoods of Holwadag and Black Sea, Ali Muse, head of Mogadishu\’s ambulance services, told AFP.
The Shebab offesnsive began when rebel units moved down from their bastions towards Kilometre Zero, a strategic crossroads leading towards the port and the presidential compound, according to witnesses and officials.
Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, a spokesman for the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM), said the Shebab\’s progress required immediate action.
"People need to understand what our mandate is, we are here to protect the transitional federal institutions of Somalia and we also have red lines. If our forces are endangered, they have the right to protect themselves," he said.
In 2010 alone hundreds of civilians have died in the crossfire as a result of both insurgent attacks and retaliatory fire by African Union or government forces.
Thousands have been killed in such incidents over the past three years and hundreds of thousands have been forced out of the city into crowded camps.
The Shebab, whose leaders have proclaimed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, control most of southern and central Somalia but have failed to reach the well-protected presidential compound and topple Sharif.
The insurgent movement\’s top spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, claimed at a press briefing Sunday that Shebab fighters had killed dozens of government forces.
"Our fighters attacked several positions controlled by the apostate government soldiers. We killed dozens of them and took control of their barracks overnight," he said.
Sharif, a young moderate Islamist cleric, was elected in January 2009 but has since failed to assert his authority on the troubled Horn of Africa nation and to prevent the expansion of the Shebab.
The Somali president, who is also facing dissent within his own government, is in Istanbul for an international conference aimed at bolstering support for his transitional institutions and drafting a roadmap to peace.
On the opening day of the conference Saturday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told delegates from 55 nations and 12 international organisations that "the only way to restore stability is to support this government in its reconciliation effort and its fight against extremism."
"If the international community acts now, I think it can make the difference," he said.
Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991.