, MOGADISHU, Sep 23 – Somalia\’s Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab militants launched a fresh offensive in Mogadishu Thursday, sparking clashes that killed at least 19 civilians, medics and witnesses said.
The insurgents attacked positions held by government forces and troops from the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in several districts of the beleaguered capital.
"We have counted 19 civilians killed in the clashes so far. At least 86 others were also wounded," Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu\’s ambulance services, told AFP.
Muse said that most of the dead civilians were killed in the Bakara market area, a Shebab stronghold, when government and AMISOM forces fired retaliatory mortar rounds.
"It is a disaster, the shelling is indiscriminate, they are killing innocent civilians in a densely populated market place," he said.
Abdirahman Adan, an eyewitness in Bakara, said at least nine of the victims were killed by the same hit.
"I have never seen such bloodshed. Nine people died in one spot in Bakara and nearly 20 others were wounded," he said.
"I was completely shocked when I saw so many dead bodies, some of them torn to pieces," Adan told AFP.
"There are women and children among the casualties and the number of dead could increase because there were so many wounded people," said Ahmed Abdullahi, another witness.
Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the neighbourhoods of Shibis, Bondhere, Hodan and Holwadag following the violent exchange of artillery fire between the two sides.
On August 23, the Shebab, who control most of southern and central Somalia, announced a major offensive "to eliminate the invading Christians and their apostate government."
The fresh push wreaked panic in government ranks for a few days.
AMISOM stepped in and pinned back the insurgents before they could achieve their objective of taking over the presidential palace and cutting the city\’s main thoroughfare, a key supply line for AMISOM and the government.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting pitting the Shebab-led rebels against government troops backed by AMISOM.
Although no reliable figure is available for civilian casualties, thousands have died over the past three years and hundreds of thousands have been made homeless by the fighting in Mogadishu.
Rights groups have accused all sides of the indiscriminate force in populated areas.
AMISOM has insisted it does its best to spare civilians and the government has argued that insurgents are sometimes included in civilian casualty tolls.
"By the time they reach the hospitals, the bodies have been stripped of weapons, ammunition and other paraphernalia, and they look like ordinary civilians," the Somali ministry of information said in a recent statement.
"We know civilians have been hurt and killed in the violence, especially when they have been deliberately targeted, but we suspect that some of the reported civilian deaths may actually have been extremists killed in the fighting," the statement said.