, MOGADISHU, Jun 3 – Somali soldiers on Thursday launched a major counter-offensive to recapture recently lost ground from Islamist insurgents in Mogadishu, sparking a fierce battle that left at least 21 civilians dead.
Newly-trained government forces backed by the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) kicked off their operation early in northwestern Mogadishu, drawing a barrage of retaliatory fire from rebel groups, witnesses said.
The internationally-backed government had lost ground last month when insurgents, mainly from the Al Qaeda-inspired Shabaab movement, punched through a strategic frontline and closed in on the presidential compound.
"The Somali government forces advanced on the terrorists\’ strongholds this morning," Colonel Ahmed Ibrahim, a government security official, told AFP.
"They took control of several neighbourhoods which had been held by the rebels and the fighting is still going on. There are several bodies strewn across the streets," he added.
Medical sources counted at least 21 civilian deaths after the first few hours of fighting but expected the toll to rise, with no immediate information on combatant casualties and several areas impossible to access independently.
"Today\’s clashes are very heavy. The artillery and mortar fire exchanged by both sides is reaching distant neighbourhoods," Ali Muse, head of Mogadishu\’s ambulance services, told AFP.
"Our teams have so far collected 16 dead civilians and 59 wounded," he said. "But the toll is likely to be higher since the fighting is continuing."
Duniya Ali, an official at Mogadishus main Medina hospital, also said that five of the wounded brought in Thursday morning had died of their wounds, among them three children.
This year 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 forced out of the city into crowded camps.
On May 21-22, even as President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was in Turkey mustering further support for his embattled transitional federal government (TFG), the Shabaab and its Hezb al-Islam allies launched a devastating attack in Mogadishu.
They seized large swathes of the Shibis and Bondhere neighbourhoods, moving them within barely more than a stone\’s throw of the shrivelling perimeter housing the presidency and other key institutions.
It also gave them a strategic vantage point over Mogadishu port and the ability to disrupt supplies to the government and AMISOM.
AMISOM said at the time that the insurgents had crossed "a red line" and that the rebel advance warranted tough reprisals.