Somali government launches new offensive

The latest battle comes as government forces try to regain territory that militants seized last week.

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Several people are dead and dozens wounded in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as Somali government forces launch a new offensive against the Islamist rebels who have been in control of the region.

The BBC reports that the Friday's battles are the latest in 10 days of fighting between government forces and two militant groups, Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam, which have left more than 100 civilians dead.  The new fighting is over territory seized from the government last week by Islamist rebels.

The BBC's Mohamed Olad Hassan, in Mogadishu, says the pro-government forces have launched a massive military offensive against the insurgents.
Most of the fighting is focusing around one of the city's main roads, Wadnaha, he says.
African Union peacekeepers based in the capital to support the fragile administration are not involved in the attack, he adds. The 4,300-strong force does not have a mandate to pursue the insurgents.

Somalia's Western-backed government and Islamist rebels have been fighting for control over the country for almost two decades. The rebels seized control of Mogadishu in 2006, but were ousted by Ethiopian soldiers, fighting on behalf of the Somali government, later that year.  However, the Ethiopian forces withdrew in December 2008, and a new unity government was formed in January under transitional President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.  But while the moderate Mr. Sharif agreed to institute Islamic law, or sharia, in Somalia to appease hard-line Islamists, the rebels remained opposed to the government and have since been making strides to retake the capital.

The Associated Press reports that the government's military commander, Lt. Yusuf Osman Dumal, said Friday's fighting started when the rebels attacked government positions.  Mogadishu residents, however, said that the attack appeared to be a planned government offensive.

Resident Abdi Haji said hundreds of government troops had attacked positions held by Islamist fighters in the south and north of the Somali capital. He said there was heavy shelling around Wadnaha road, which the government lost to Islamist fighters earlier this month. Wadnaha connects the north and south of the city and is one of the four major roads in Mogadishu.

Agence France-Presse writes that government and Islamist spokesmen disagree about the success of government forces in Friday's fighting.

[Government military spokesman Farhan Mahdi Mohamed] said one soldier was wounded and claimed government forces had regained control of three areas of the capital – Tarbunka, Bakara and Howlwadag – previously held by the insurgents.
A spokesman for the rebels, who call themselves the Shebab or Party of Youth, denied the claim.
"The enemy of Allah attacked our positions this morning and our fighters are defending themselves. They have not taken any positions from us," said Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage.

AFP adds that its reporter saw at least two dead bodies, and independent news station Radio Shabelle said that one of its reporters was killed in the fighting.  The National Union of Somali Journalists, condemned the death of the reporter, Abdirisak Warsameh Mohamed, in a press release.

Reuters writes that the death toll is much higher, at 15 at least, and that some of those killed were Islamist rebels, according to residents' accounts.  Those accounts also appear to support the government's claim that it had recaptured several parts of the city.

"I saw masked men running away carrying the bodies of four of their friends," Halima Osman, a mother-of-three who lives in the city's sprawling Bakara Market, told Reuters.

"We were surprised to see men in government uniforms fighting in Bakara. They have recaptured four police stations between here and the palace, and they are advancing further." ...
"They have surrounded Bakara Market, al Shabaab's biggest stronghold in the city. We hope for the sake of peace that the government forces do not retreat later," one local man said.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that casualties were "streaming into hospitals." "We have admitted 12 wounded since this morning, but the casualties keep coming hour by hour," Dahir Dhere, of Medina Hospital, told the German news agency.

Though there are no reports of Ethiopian troops being involved in the fighting in Mogadishu, it is noteworthy that the fighting comes after recent evidence that Ethiopian forces are present in Somalia once again.  The Christian Science Monitor wrote earlier this week that Somali witnesses say they have seen Ethiopian troops well inside Somali territory, though their purpose there was unclear.  But experts believe it is no coincidence that they have entered Somalia amid the Islamist rebels' military successes in the last couple weeks.

"Ethiopia does go in and out of Somali territory, but with reports of the impending collapse of the Somali government by Islamist militias, I gather that Ethiopia would keep a close eye on matters," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on Somali politics at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria.
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