- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Hundreds of government soldiers attacked Islamist insurgents across the Somali capital amid heavy artillery shelling Friday, battling along streets strewn with bodies as they tried to regain lost ground.

The U.N.-backed government, which held just a few blocks of Mogadishu before the fighting erupted early in the day, claimed it had taken rebel-controlled areas, but the insurgents said they repelled the attacks.

One Somali reported that a busload of fleeing civilians was hit by gunfire, and others told of seeing many casualties. At least 22 people were dead and more than 150 wounded across the city, according to residents, medical officials and an independent radio station.

The government offensive followed a few days’ lull after insurgents staged a major attack in Mogadishu. Despite successes, the Islamists failed to gain control of key installations such as the airport and presidential palace, which are guarded by African Union peacekeepers.

The Islamist fighters also had been expanding their hold on territory in central Somalia, taken from clan militias allied to the government.

But the militants halted when neighboring Ethiopia moved several columns of troops over the border to secure key towns. Ethiopia, which helped government troops drive Islamic militiamen out of the capital late in 2006, worries about the insurgents’ links to rebel groups on its own soil.

Regional leaders issued a hurried statement Friday in support of the beleaguered U.N.-backed government, which took advantage of the calm in recent days to resupply and regroup its troops before launching Friday’s assault.

Both sides fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and missiles from launchers mounted on trucks into residential areas. Gunmen with belts of ammunition wound around their chests crouched behind shell-pocked buildings, ignoring bodies in the streets.

Among the dead was journalist Abdirisaq Warsame Mohamed of the independent radio station Shabelle Media Network. His editor said he was hit by a stray bullet on his way to work.

The U.N. said some 49,000 people had fled the capital, and the humanitarian situation was dire. Many families camped out under trees or by the side of roads, sheltered by nothing more than a few scraps of plastic, without access to food or water.

Two insurgent groups have cobbled together an alliance seeking to overthrow the weak government and its allied militias. But Mark Schroeder, an analyst at Stratfor, an international intelligence company, said even if that occurred the nationalist aims of the leader of the Islamic Party and the jihadist ideology of the al-Shabab militia would likely lead to conflict between the nominal allies.

Mr. Schroeder noted that Somalia’s new president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, has a personal rivalry with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, an Islamist leader who arrived in Mogadishu a month ago after two years of exile in Eritrea.

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