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Violence engulfs Somali capital

IHT | January 10, 2007 
Jeffrey Gettleman

MOGADISHU, Somalia
Mogadishu exploded in violence Wednesday morning after insurgents attacked a government barracks during the night and soldiers responded by sealing off large swaths of the city and searching house to house for weapons.

The raids immediately sparked resistance, and squads of Ethiopian soldiers and troops loyal to the transitional government poured into the streets, where they battled outraged residents and a handful of masked insurgents.

From dawn through early afternoon, the pop of gunfire and the boom of explosives echoed across Mogadishu, Somalia's chaotic capital. But it is difficult to tell how many people here actually support the growing insurgency against Somalia's transitional government and the Ethiopian troops backing it up.

On Wednesday, a group of masked men stood on the steps of a Mogadishu mosque and announced that they were Somalia's new freedom fighters. They were met by jeers.

"Why can't you hit anything then?" shouted a woman, referring to a botched grenade attack earlier in the day that completely missed an Ethiopian patrol and destroyed a house instead. "Were you scared? Were your fingers trembling?"

Regardless of the insurgents' popularity or lack of it, violence is increasing. And the transitional government, which entered the capital two weeks ago for the first time since it was formed in 2004, now faces a critical test: how quickly, if at all, can it pacify a notoriously dangerous city, bristling with guns and split by deep clan divisions?

Most of the violence on Wednesday was concentrated in strongholds of the Ayr sub clan, a powerful lineage group closely connected to Somalia's Islamist movement that had controlled much of the country until Ethiopia got heavily involved last month.

On the other hand, neighborhoods of the Darod clan of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the transitional president, were quiet. Many Darod members said they were happy about the weapons raids, especially the ones in Ayr neighborhoods.

Clan rivalries have long been the curse of Somalia, the cause of its civil wars, its famines and its state of suspended decay. It seems that this new chapter is no different.

The insurgents are still a mysterious bunch, but many people suspect they are members of the Islamist movement. After getting routed by Ethiopian-led forces in a conventional military matchup, the Islamists vowed to fight on as an underground army.

As each night passes, more and more government troops are getting hit. On Tuesday night, insurgents launched one of their boldest attacks yet, firing rocket-propelled grenades from two pickup trucks at an army barracks in central Mogadishu. Initial reports indicated that several soldiers were killed and that the insurgents escaped.

Doctors at Medina hospital said Wednesday afternoon that 15 people were admitted for gunshot wounds in 24 hours, including 3 government soldiers. The violence from the past week has filled the hospital's 65 beds, leaving bleeding men and women curled up on the floor and under acacia trees in the courtyard.

"This is not something that is going to stop," said Dahir Mohammed, head of medical department. "Until the Ethiopians leave, people will be determined to kill them."

The Islamist leaders, meanwhile, have fled to a jungle in southern Somalia along the Kenyan border where they are being hunted down by Ethiopian troops, with the help of American forces.

Somali officials on Wednesday said that Abdallah Mohammed Fazul, a suspected terrorist accused of planning the bombings against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, had been killed in recent American airstrikes in southern Somalia.

But U.S. officials quickly distanced themselves from that claim, saying on Wednesday that they had no such evidence and were not even sure Fazul was among the terrorist suspects hiding in the jungle with the Islamists.

An American AC-130 gunship pounded the area Sunday, the first time U.S. forces have been publicly deployed in Somalia since 1994.

Since June, when the Islamist movement rose to power, U.S. officials have complained that Islamist leaders were sheltering terrorists connected to the embassy bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

On Wednesday, residents in southern Somalia said the warplanes returned, though those reports could not be independently verified. The Ethiopian Air Force has also been pummeling the area for much of the past week.

Thousands of Ethiopian troops are essentially occupying Somalia and many Somalis are increasingly beginning to resent it.

Barwaqho Mohammed Osman, a mother of two, stood in a central Mogadishu street Wednesday with plastic bags of groceries in her hands and no way to get home. Ethiopian soldiers told her that her neighborhood had been sealed off because of the raids.

When Osman tried to plead with them, witnesses said, the soldiers clicked the safeties off their guns and told her to go.

"Why did our president bring in these people?" she asked. "They are occupiers, and if they keep this up, they will fail at every step."

Mohammed Ibrahim and Yuusuf Maxamuud contributed reporting from Mogadishu.

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