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Somalia shelling leaves 20 dead

Mortar rounds also hit the airport as the president was leaving for a meeting in Uganda. His plane was not hit.

October 23, 2009|Lutfi Sheriff Mohamed | Mohamed is a special correspondent.

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — At least 20 people were killed and 61 others injured in shelling that began when Somali insurgents fired on the president's airplane as it prepared to leave Mogadishu early Thursday, officials said.

President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed was leaving for the Ugandan capital of Kampala for a meeting of African leaders when the airport was attacked with a barrage of mortar rounds, presidential spokesman Abdulkadir Mohammed Osman said. Ahmed's plane was not hit and the president was not injured, he said.

Subsequent shelling around Mogadishu, which insurgents and African Union troops blamed on each other, led to most of the deaths in the capital's main market.

"It was one of the worst situations I've encountered," said Ali Muse Sheik, a paramedic who works for a Mogadishu ambulance service.

Insurgents and witnesses said retaliatory fire came from African Union bases and hit residential areas around the Bakara market.

"They are the ones responsible for today's massacre," said Sheik Muse Abdi Arale, a commander with the insurgent group Hizbul Islam. "Both the apostate government and mercenary infidels are always firing toward residential areas and Bakara market every time we attack."

A spokesman for the African Union denied that its forces had returned fire and said the shelling might have come from ongoing battles between two rival insurgent groups fighting for control of northern Mogadishu.

"We were not involved in any shelling at all," said AU spokesman Maj. Barigye Ba-Hoku. "This is not the first time they've accused us."

After complaints about civilian casualties, the AU said this year that it had changed its rules of engagement to prohibit its soldiers from firing into residential areas.

Witnesses said those killed Thursday appeared to include civilians.

"We ran into a concrete building for safety, but a missile penetrated the side of the building and killed six people and wounded more than 10, including me," said Jelani Abdiasis Nur, a Mogadishu resident who sustained minor injuries.

Somalia's insurgents, mostly from hard-line Islamist groups with links to Al Qaeda, have been fighting for two years to topple a United Nations-recognized transitional government that seized control of Mogadishu in 2006 from an Islamist-run religious alliance.

In early 2007, the AU sent troops from Uganda and Burundi to support the government. More than 5,000 troops from the alliance are serving in the Horn of Africa country.

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