AU forces battle rebels in Mogadishu
Mogadishu - Somali government forces and African Union troops battled insurgents in the capital Mogadishu Thursday in a bid to secure aid routes for drought victims.
At least 27 civilians were injured in the fighting, medics said.
The clashes come just a day after the UN World Food Programme (WFP) began airlifting emergency supplies into the war-torn capital for thousands of children at risk of starvation from an extreme drought in the Horn of Africa.
"Our troops have dealt with specific security threats in a short tactical offensive operation," the spokesperson for the African Union force in Somalia (Amisom) Paddy Ankunda said in a statement.
The assault aimed to "ensure that aid agencies can continue to operate and get vital supplies to internally displaced persons", he added.
Three positions in the city were captured in a "limited and pinpoint offensive" Ankunda said.
Fighting erupted near the city's key Bakara market and Suqbacad areas, with the two sides exchanging heavy machinegun and artillery fire.
Witnesses told AFP that the AU troops and tanks crossed a road that has acted as a frontline in their war with hardline Shabaab insurgents, and moved into the Suqbacad area.
"We have counted around 27 civilian casualties, they were caught in the crossfire," said Mohamed Abdiwahab, an ambulance driver in Mogadishu.
"The few people who still were in the area have now started to flee," added Muktar Ahmed, a resident of the Suqbacad neighbourhood.
Shabaab Islamists have vowed to topple the Western-backed transitional government and chase out the Amisom troops supporting it.
But the al-Qaeda inspired Shabaab have been losing ground in the capital in recent months as pro-government troops and Amisom claw their way back to several key positions.
At least 10 Shabaab fighters and two government soldiers were killed, while two Amisom troops were wounded, officials said.
Shabaab officials could not be contacted.
Fighting died down later on Thursday, but sporadic shelling could still be heard, an AFP reporter said.
Danger of starvation
The European Union, meanwhile, extended its military training mission in Somalia by another year to help the transitional government build up security forces in conflict with insurgents.
Somalia is the Horn of Africa country worst affected by a prolonged drought, that has put some 12 million people in danger of starvation and spurred a global fund-raising campaign.
Nearly half of Somalia's estimated 10 million people are in need of relief assistance, owing to the effects of the relentless violence and the drought that prompted the UN to declare famine for the first time this century.
While thousands of Somalis continue to stream into neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya seeking food and water, up to 100 000 people have fled into Mogadishu over the last two months, according to the UN refugee agency.
The WFP said it hoped that relief efforts would not be affected by the fighting.
"The offensive and the increased security has potential severe implications," spokesperson David Orr said from Mogadishu.
"Our local partners who are transporting and distributing the food may be affected, but we are still hoping that most if not all operations will still be going ahead as planned."
Officials said the UN had received about $1bn in pledges at a Rome drought conference on Monday, but needs a billion more by the end of the year to cope with the emergency.
The World Bank on Monday pledged more than $500m - the bulk of the money intended for long-term projects to aid livestock farmers, while $12m would be for immediate assistance to those worst hit by the crisis.
Member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) agreed in Istanbul on Thursday to co-ordinate their emergency response to the drought, with Saudi Arabia pledging $60m and Kuwait another $10m.
Turkish Muslim charity IHH said it would send 3 000 tons of humanitarian assistance, while the OIC said it would distribute aid to some 40 000 people near Mogadishu.
The WFP was forced to pull out from southern Somalia in early 2010 after it was banned by the Shabaab rebels, who control large areas of the region.