Heavy fighting erupted on Thursday in Somalia’s capital as African Union peacekeepers launched an offensive aimed at protecting famine relief efforts from attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants, officials said. At least six people died.

Al-Shabab, Somalia’s dominant militant group, has sent 300 reinforcement fighters to Mogadishu in recent days, said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping force.

Col. Ankunda said the AU force believes that al-Shabab is-trying to prevent aid from reaching the tens of thousands of famine refugees who have arrived in Mogadishu this month.

The al-Shabab militants already have killed men who tried to escape the famine with their families, saying it is better to starve than accept help from the West. The World Food Programme says it cannot reach 2.2 million people in need of aid in the militant-controlled areas in southern Somalia because of insecurity.

Col. Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, said that AU forces had conducted a “short tactical offensive operation” on Thursday in Mogadishu.

“This action will further increase security ... and ensure that aid agencies can continue to operate to get vital supplies to internally displaced,” Col. Ankunda said in a statement.

“We are concerned about the extremists’ reckless attacks given the humanitarian activities being carried out presently,” he said.

Col. Ankunda said al-Shabab’s decision last week to rescind permission allowing aid groups to operate in the areas the militants control already has denied hundreds of thousands of Somalis access to food aid.

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