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Fighting between Ethiopians and Somali insurgents escalates in Mogadishu

By Jesse / March 30, 2007

Fierce fighting raged on in Somalia's capital Friday, a day after Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's transitional government launched an offensive against insurgents loyal to the ousted Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and Somali clan members who oppose the UN-backed government.

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The Associated Press reports that the offensive is part of a "three-day push to restore order in Mogadishu" before the remaining Ethiopian troops in Somalia withdraw from the country.

The BBC reports the Ethiopian troops, supported by helicopter gunships and tanks, have clashed with "hundreds of insurgents armed with rocket launchers and machine guns," leading to a virtual lockdown in the city.

"This is the worst fighting Mogadishu has seen since the Islamists were ousted. Explosions can be heard all over the city and many people are just holed up in their homes," resident Zenaib Abubakar told the BBC Somali Service.

According to Agence France-Presse, at least 38 people, many of them civilians, have died since the fighting began on Thursday.

Reuters reports that as two Ethiopian helicopters were "firing on an insurgent stronghold," one of the aircraft was shot down by a missle or rocket-propelled grenade.

"Smoke billowed from the cabin and it turned toward the ocean," said Swiss journalist Eugen Sorg, who watched from a nearby roof. "It crashed at the south end of airport runway."

Witnesses said black smoke poured into the air and several explosions were heard booming from the crash site.

Reuters says that the combination of air strikes and artillery battles in heavily-populated areas of the city, along with scenes of mob violence and "wild-eyed gunmen," is reminiscent of Mogadishu during the failed 1993 US mission to hunt down warlords in the Somali capital, which was recounted in the book "Black Hawk Down."

The violence comes three months after Ethiopian and Somali government forces ousted the UIC, a hardline Islamic movement that had taken over much of the country. The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that many Somalis did not welcome the Ethiopian military presence.

Ethiopian forces are not popular in this battle-scarred land. Many in Mogadishu see them as an invading force rather than a liberating power. This is due to a longstanding, bitter rivalry between Ethiopia - a country with a large Christian population - and mostly Muslim Somalia. The countries fought two wars in the last 45 years, and Somalia still lays claim to territories in Ethiopia.

The New York Times reports that in an effort to ease some of the tension between the Ethiopians and the Somalis, Ethiopian officers reached a truce with clan leaders in Mogadishu last week — a truce they are being accused by clan leaders of breaking by invading the city on Thursday.

Many residents now say they were better off under the Islamist administration, which briefly controlled Mogadishu last year until the Ethiopian troops invaded.

Ethiopian officers tried to defuse the situation last week by sitting down with elders of the Hawiye clan, the most powerful clan in Mogadishu and one widely believed to be fueling the insurgency. The two sides hammered out a truce, and according to Hawiye elders, the Ethiopians agreed to stay out of their neighborhoods.