Thousands of Somalis Flee Fighting in Capital

Displaced residents rest at the Hawa Abdi refugee camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. The capital is said to have lost about a third of its population.
Displaced residents rest at the Hawa Abdi refugee camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. The capital is said to have lost about a third of its population. (By Mohamed Sheikh Nor -- Associated Press)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 2, 2007

NAIROBI, Nov. 1 -- Nearly 90,000 people have fled fighting in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in recent days, a mass exodus that comes on top of the 20,000 or so who have left each month since spring, U.N. officials said Thursday.

The seaside city has lost about a third of its population, with entire neighborhoods all but abandoned, markets frequently closed and food increasingly scarce, according to remaining residents.

Fighting between Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops and insurgents has raged for months, but clashes that began over the weekend have been the most intense since Ethiopian tanks and attack helicopters assaulted the city in March and April, officials said.

Since then, tens of thousands of people have abandoned their homes and scattered across a Somali countryside that is harsh under the best of circumstances, with frequent droughts, floods and little reliably arable land.

Humanitarian officials note that Somalia has been dotted with semi-permanent encampments of people displaced by years of civil war following the fall of the last central government in 1991.

In all, more than 800,000 people are displaced in the Horn of Africa country of 9 million. An estimated 1.5 million people are in need of assistance, officials say.

In an open letter to Somali government officials, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia said that while humanitarian needs are increasing, it has become more difficult for aid organizations to reach the displaced and deliver food, tarps, medicine and other emergency provisions.

"Whether prevented from doing distributions because of insecurity or halted from movement because of checkpoints or ad hoc 'taxation,' humanitarian organizations are not able to reach all persons in need," the official, Christian Balslev-Olesen, said in the letter.

Mogadishu has been an urban battlefield since Ethiopian troops invaded in December, ousting a short-lived Islamic movement and installing the U.S.-backed transitional government of President Abdullahi Yusuf.

Despite an authoritarian approach that human rights groups say has included summary executions, house-to-house raids and arbitrary detentions, Yusuf and his Ethiopian backers have failed to subdue an insurgency composed mostly of Islamic fighters and clan militias.

Aid organizations have also criticized Yusuf's government for at times blocking humanitarian assistance.


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