14 Somalis killed in Shabaab attack
Mogadishu - Somalia's al-Qaeda-inspired Shabaab rebels attacked the presidential palace in Mogadishu overnight, sparking a battle that left at least 14 civilians dead, officials and witnesses said on Sunday.
The Islamist insurgents fired salvos of mortar rounds and closed in on the presidential area even as the world was pledging renewed support to Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed at a conference in Turkey.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard around midday on Sunday after African Union (AU) troops stopped the insurgent advance and defended the shrivelled seaside perimeter housing Sharif's embattled government.
"The number of civilians killed during the clashes overnight has reached 11 and it could be higher, because the violent militants using mortars attacked several other positions in southern Mogadishu," Mohamed Ali Idle, a Somali government security official, told AFP.
The victims included five members of the same family who were killed when a mortar shell smashed into their home, several witnesses told AFP.
At least three more civilians were killed in an exchange of mortar fire in the southern neighbourhoods of Holwadag and Black Sea, Ali Muse, head of Mogadishu's ambulance services told AFP, bringing the death toll to 14.
The Shabaab offensive began when rebel units moved down from their bastions towards Kilometre Zero, a strategic crossroads leading towards the port and the presidential compound, according to witnesses and officials.
Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, a spokesperson for the AU mission in Somalia (Amisom), said the Shabaab's progress required immediate action.
"People need to understand what our mandate is, we are here to protect the transitional federal institutions of Somalia and we also have red lines. If our forces are endangered, they have the right to protect themselves," he said.
This year alone hundreds of civilians have died in the crossfire as a result of both insurgent attacks and retaliatory fire by AU or government forces.
Thousands have been killed in such incidents over the past three years and hundreds of thousands have been forced out of the city into crowded camps.
Residents and officials said hundreds of families were fleeing the worst-hit neighbourhoods on Sunday.
"Nobody can endure the heavy artillery and mortar shelling ravaging our neighbourhood. Many civilians have died already and if we don't leave, we'll just join the list of those killed in the crossfire," said Dahir Abdullahi Farey, a Shibis resident.
The Shabaab, whose leaders have proclaimed their allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, control most of southern and central Somalia but have failed to reach the well-protected presidential compound and topple Sharif.
The insurgent movement's top spokesperson, Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, claimed at a press briefing on Sunday that Shabaab fighters had killed dozens of government forces.
"Our fighters attacked several positions controlled by the apostate government soldiers. We killed dozens of them and took control of their barracks overnight," he said.
Another Shabaab commander, Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, told AFP his forces were encircling government forces and expected to press on with their offensive on the presidential palace.
Although the security situation in Mogadishu - one of the world's most dangerous cities - made it difficult to obtain an independent assessment of the military situation, the insurgents appeared to have made some gains.
Sharif, a young moderate Islamist cleric, was elected in January 2009 but has since failed to assert his authority on the troubled Horn of Africa nation and to prevent the expansion of the Shabaab.
The Somali president, who is also facing dissent within his own government, is in Istanbul for an international conference aimed at bolstering support for his transitional institutions and drafting a roadmap to peace.