, MOGADISHU, Jul 28 – Heavy fighting broke out Thursday in the Somali capital Mogadishu as government forces backed by African Union troops launched an assault on an insurgent stronghold, officials and witnesses said.
Several civilians were injured in the fighting, medics said.
The clashes come just a day after the UN World Food Programme began an airlift of emergency relief into the war-torn capital, to bring supplies for thousands at risk of starvation from an extreme drought in the Horn of Africa.
“There is heavy fighting this morning in several locations, it is too early to say about casualty numbers, but there are some civilians who were injured in the crossfire,” said Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu’s ambulance service.
Fighting erupted near the city’s key Bakara market and Suqbacad areas, with both sides exchanging heavy machinegun and artillery fire.
Witnesses told AFP that the AU troops and tanks crossed a road that has acted as a frontline in their war with the hardline Shebab insurgents, and moved into the Suqbacad area.
“The fighting is very heavy and there are tanks belonging to the AU forces,” said Muktar Ahmed, a resident of the Suqbacad neighbourhood.
“The few people who still were in the area have now started to flee,” he added.
Shebab Islamists have vowed to topple the Western-backed transitional government, and chase out the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM) troops supporting it.
The Al-Qaeda inspired Shebab have been losing ground in the capital in recent months as pro-government troops and AMISOM have clawed their way back to several key positions.
AMISOM spokesman Paddy Ankunda said that a “limited and pinpoint offensive” had taken three positions in the city.
“Our troops have dealt with specific security threats in a short tactical offensive operation,” Ankunda said in a statement.
The assault was aimed to “ensure that aid agencies can continue to operate and get vital supplies to internally displaced persons,” he added.
Somalia is the Horn of Africa country worst affected by a prolonged drought, that has put some 12 million people in danger of starvation and spurred a global fund-raising campaign.
Nearly half of Somalia’s estimated 10 million people are in need of relief assistance, owing to the effects of the relentless violence and the drought that prompted the UN to declare famine for the first time this century.
While thousands of Somalis continue to stream into neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya seeking food and water, up to 100,000 people have fled into Mogadishu over the last two months, according to the UN refugee agency.
The WFP said that they hoped that relief efforts would not be impacted by the fighting.
“The offensive and the increased security has potential severe implications,” said WFP spokesman David Orr, speaking from Mogadishu.
“Our local partners who are transporting and distributing the food may be affected, but we are still hoping that most if not all operations will still be going ahead as planned.”
Officials said the UN had received about $1 billion (696 million euros) in pledges during a Rome conference on Monday on the drought, but needs a billion more by the end of the year to cope with the emergency.
The World Bank on Monday pledged more than $500 million, with the bulk of the money set to go towards long-term projects to aid livestock farmers, while $12 million would be for immediate assistance to those worst hit by the crisis.
However, the scope of the catastrophe is huge and any upsurge in fighting in what is already one of the world’s most dangerous countries will add to the challenges of delivering aid.
The WFP was forced to pull out from southern Somalia in early 2010 after they were banned by the Shebab rebels, who control large areas of the region.
A handful of relief groups were spared the insurgents’ ban, but have been struggling to cope with the rising numbers of people in need of humanitarian aid.
However, dealing with the Shebab is controversial. Many say it was the US-designated terrorist group’s restriction of aid since 2009 that turned widespread drought across the region into famine in areas they control.