NAIROBI, Kenya—Mogadishu was torn by mortar and heavy machine gun fire early Wednesday as Islamist insurgents took on the forces of Somalia's Western-backed government.
The Islamic militant group Al Shabaab has stepped up attacks over the past two weeks and appears to be close to toppling the Somali government.
Two adults and a six-year boy were killed in a two-hour firefight early Wednesday, Mogadishu residents told The Associated Press. These deaths came on top of an estimated 200 killed in fighting over the last two weeks. Mogadishu's three main hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says a further 45,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes as the new round of heavy fighting erupted. They will join the 3 million already in need of food aid.
Fears are growing that Al Shabaab will take control of Mogadishu, becoming the first self-confessed ally of Al Qaeda to seize a capital city since the Taliban took Kabul.
On Sunday Al Shabaab seized the president's hometown of Jowhar, north of the capital, helping consolidate their control of south and central Somalia.
The six-nation regional grouping, called the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, met in Addis Ababa on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Somalia. The group called on the United Nations to impose an aerial and maritime blockade on Somalia, to cut off supplies to the Islamic extremists of Al Shabaab. The regional group charges that Al Shabaab is getting arms and foreign fighters through Somalia's ports and porous borders.
Foreign fighters are helping Al Shabaab, according to diplomats. "There is no doubt from many sources, covert or overt, that there is a significant number of foreign fighters in Somalia from within the continent and outside," said U.N. special envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, when in Nairobi last week.
There may be as many as 900 foreigners fighting with Al Shabaab, according to one Western diplomat with long experience in Somalia. "Foreign fighters are doing a lot of the command and control of the Shabaab," he told GlobalPost.
Chechen, Yemen, Saudi and South Asian jihadists are being joined by others from Britain and the U.S., the diplomat said. "These [foreigners] are the most extreme, the ones with Al Qaeda links," he added.
Somalia's shaky Transitional Federal Government (TGF), led since January this year by President Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has the backing of the international community but not of the Somali people who are deeply suspicious of meddling by outsiders.
Protecting the government are 4,350 African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu, who control the presidential palace, airport and seaport, but nothing else.
The international support also means cash. In April, the U.S. and other Western powers pledged $213 million to shore up the government, of which $60 million was for military support.
At the same time, an influential Islamist hard-liner and government opponent, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, returned from exile in Eritrea to join with Al Shabaab to topple the transitional government. "The TFG opponents felt it was now or never," the Western diplomat said.
Some observers compare the ferocity of the current conflagration to 1993 when 18 U.S. Rangers were killed during a failed peace enforcement mission, dramatized in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
That tragic misadventure came two years after the collapse of the last government that Somalia has known, and it has discouraged any further hands-on Western involvement.
Underscoring the muddled approach of the international community towards Somalia is the fact that President Ahmed — the man to whom Western hopes are now shackled — was kicked out of Mogadishu only three years ago by an Ethiopian army then acting with the tacit support of Western governments.
The U.S. especially objected to the Shariah law and fundamentalist bent of the Islamic Courts Union, a homegrown grassroots movement that brought peace and order to Somalia for the first time in 15 years. Ahmed and Aweys were colleagues in the Islamic Courts which was
popular for disarming the predatory warlords and their militias who had held sway since 1991.
While Ahmed, a former schoolteacher, agreed to talk to Western governments, paving the way for his rehabilitation in their eyes, the decision also allowed him to be portrayed as a traitor by Aweys and other extremists.
Despite his lack of a popular mandate Ahmed has attempted to negotiate with his erstwhile colleague, but these overtures have been rejected by Aweys who, as the current fighting and bloodshed show, is more interested in ousting Ahmed than joining him.