By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 22, 2007
NAIROBI, March 21 -- Somali civilians and masked insurgents burned the bodies of four soldiers, kicked them, pelted them with rocks and dragged the bloodied and half-naked corpses through Mogadishu on Wednesday, witnesses said. It was one of the most violent days since Somalia's Ethiopian-backed transitional government ousted a relatively popular Islamic movement in December.
At least 16 people were killed in several hours of heavy fighting in the Somali capital, including at least four government troops and two Ethiopian soldiers, the witnesses said. Several dozen civilians were wounded.
The bodies of two government soldiers and two Ethiopian soldiers were then hauled like grotesque trophies through the streets, a ritualistic expression of hatred for an increasingly unpopular government and the neighboring country supporting it. Ethiopian officials denied their soldiers were among those mutilated.
"The situation has reached this point of public anger in the streets," said Ahmed Ali, a businessman who lives near the neighborhood where fighting broke out Wednesday. "Today in Mogadishu, you cannot say a single word in support of the government. It's been three months now since the government gained control of Mogadishu, but since they arrived, they've been losing support of so many people."
The incident was the latest in weeks of persistent violence since the transitional government took hold, and a sign, some in the city said, of the growing popularity of an intractable insurgency on the streets of Mogadishu.
Besides the anti-government fighters, an angry crowd of civilians took part in mutilating the soldiers' bodies, Ali and other witnesses said. The incident was reminiscent of an attack in 1993 in which the bodies of U.S. troops were dragged through the city's streets after their Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by militiamen during a failed U.S. attempt to capture a warlord.
Ali said women in his neighborhood have begun feeding breakfast and lunch to the insurgents, a group composed of fighters loyal to the ousted Islamic movement and militias belonging to sub-clans who say they feel disenfranchised by a government promising inclusion and reconciliation.
The government of President Abdullahi Yusuf has called a reconciliation conference for April, a step that has been encouraged by U.S. and European diplomats who are supporting the transitional government.
At the same time, however, moderate leaders from the ousted Islamic movement whom many diplomats consider key to a political resolution have remained exiled in Yemen or Europe, as Yusuf's government has refused them an audience. Furthermore, members of the powerful Ayr sub-clan, from which the Islamic Courts movement drew much of its military support, also say they have been excluded from meaningful participation in the new government, which is dominated by rival clans.
The Ayr appear to have cast their lot with the insurgency.
"Our feeling is the president is committed to eliminate and destroy the Ayr," said Mohamud Uluso, a political leader of the sub-clan. "His motive is revenge against the Ayr."
The fighting Wednesday began as Ethiopian and government soldiers entered a neighborhood controlled by insurgents and dominated by Ayr. In a city accustomed to brief firefights, an unusually protracted battle followed, starting in the early morning and continuing until about noon.
Ali said that he could not leave his house in the Casa Popolare neighborhood until 10:30 a.m. and that when he did, he walked to his office hugging the cement sides of buildings for fear of stray bullets.
"People were running from four directions, running from the shelling, running to rescue their children, or to some injured person," he said. "It was chaotic. People maybe don't even know where to run, where to go. They have never seen such clan warfare."
On Tuesday, Uluso said, his home was fired on by at least 30 government soldiers as he attempted to hold a meeting to discuss the political situation in Mogadishu. Several militiamen were wounded.
"The situation has gone from worse to worse," he said. "Mogadishu is at the lowest point of its social and humanitarian crisis."
The upcoming reconciliation conference, he said, "has no validity."
"We do not have any part in the reconciliation."
Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.