At least 17 people were killed and 61 injured in fighting between government forces and Islamist insurgents in the Somali capital Mogadishu, officials said on Thursday.
Government soldiers fired mortars at insurgent positions in the heavily populated Bakara market area on Wednesday after coming under attack, witnesses said.
“We admitted 61 wounded people from yesterday’s shelling,” a doctor at the Medina Hospital told the German Press Agency dpa.
“Three of them died inside the hospital during treatment.” Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu’s ambulance service, told dpa that eleven civilians died, while other witnesses said that another three had been killed.
Insurgent group al-Shabaab, which recently announced it was joining al-Qaeda’s international jihad, is pushing to oust the weak Western-backed government and controls much of Mogadishu and south and central Somalia.
Civilians are often caught in the crossfire, and human rights organizations and aid agencies have called on both the government and insurgent groups to minimize civilian casualties.
The shelling came as forces built up in Mogadishu in advance of an expected government assault on al-Shabaab’s positions.
Witnesses saw hundreds of heavily armed insurgents pour into Mogadishu on Wednesday, while the government was also building up its forces as it tries to extend its weak influence in Mogadishu.
Thousands of civilians have fled the city over the last few days in anticipation of heavy fighting.
Somalia is still locked in a full-scale insurgency one year after the appointment of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed — a former insurgent ally — as president raised hopes of peace.
However, al-Shabaab dismissed Sheikh Sharif as a traitor, and intensified their campaign.
The Horn of African nation has been embroiled in chaos since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
More than 20,000 people have died in the current insurgency, which kicked off in early 2007 after Ethiopian forces invaded to oust an Islamist regime that ruled for six months in 2006.