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20 killed as clashes erupt in Somalia

Troops battle suspected Islamist remnants. The bodies of two soldiers were stoned and set ablaze, witnesses say.

March 22, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — In some of the bloodiest fighting in months, at least 20 people were killed Wednesday in Somalia's capital. The dead included seven government soldiers, some of whose bodies were dragged through the streets and set on fire, witnesses said.

The gruesome scene was reminiscent of the 1993 crash of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu during an ill-fated mission that left 18 American servicemen dead.

The latest clashes began after government soldiers, aided by Ethiopian troops, launched an early-morning raid on the town's outskirts. They encountered stiff resistance from gunmen believed to be remnants of the Islamic Courts Union.

The Islamic alliance, accused by U.S. officials of having links to Al Qaeda, was driven out of Mogadishu in December. However, some of its fighters have moved underground and are now attempting to launch an insurgency against the government. They are calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Though U.S. and United Nations officials hoped the brief Ethiopian-led war against the Islamists would restore peace and security to Somalia after 16 years of clan war and anarchy, the Horn of Africa nation appears to be slipping back into chaos.

Amid near-daily mortar attacks and shootouts, Mogadishu residents complain that the violence is the worst it has been in years despite the presence of Ethiopian and African Union troops assisting Somalia's weak transitional government.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have fled the country in recent months, according to refugee groups. Last month, bandits hijacked a World Food Program ship delivering rations.

"At least we had peace during the time of the Islamic Courts Union," said Halima Abdi, a single mother of six. "If the government and Ethiopian troops are not going to keep the security, they should leave."

Hospital officials said they were treating dozens of civilians injured in Wednesday's fight.

"We have already received 55 wounded people of different ages, including children and old people," said Dahir Mohamoud Mohammed, director of Madina Hospital in Mogadishu.

Local journalists and photographers reported seeing at least two uniformed bodies being dragged by rope, stoned and then set on fire.

Shabelle Media Network, a Somalian news agency, on Wednesday posted pictures it said depicted the bodies of Ethiopian and Somalian government soldiers being dragged by angry mobs.

Ethiopian officials denied that any of their soldiers were among those pulled through the streets. "That is categorically false," Foreign Ministry spokesman Solomon Abede told Reuters news agency.

Michael E. Ranneberger, U.S. ambassador to Kenya, condemned the desecration of the soldiers' bodies as "horrendous" but insisted that Somalia was making progress.

"We do feel on the balance that the situation in Somalia is moving forward in a generally positive way," said Ranneberger, who also oversees U.S. affairs in Somalia.

He said the arrival of Ugandan peacekeepers, the first of an African Union force expected to eventually total 8,000, should help government forces maintain security and disarm militants.

A reconciliation conference aimed at soothing Somalia's long-standing clan rivalries also is being planned.

Ranneberger blamed recent anti-government violence on several groups, including former Islamist fighters, warlords attempting to regain control and criminal gangs. "It's a bit of an insecurity soup," he said.

He accused Al Qaeda operatives of fueling some of the chaos in Somalia. "To the extent that [the Islamic Courts Union is] seeking to reorganize, there undoubtedly is Al Qaeda encouragement for that and support for that."

*

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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