Dozens killed in clashes between Somali government forces and Islamist militants

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NAIROBI -- Intense clashes between U.S.-backed Somali government forces and Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda killed at least 53 civilians and wounded scores over the past week, a Somali human rights group said Tuesday.

Fighting, including tit-for-tat shelling on heavily populated areas, has escalated in northern Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in the days since Somalia's hard-line al-Shabab militia asserted responsibility for bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final on television at two crowded venues.

"The shelling is continuing," Ali Yesin, deputy director of the human rights group Elman, said by phone from Mogadishu. "The situation is getting worse."

On Tuesday, al-Shabab ambushed a Kenyan police unit patrolling the Kenyan-Somali border, wounding one officer and prompting Kenyan authorities to send reinforcements to the border, according to news reports.

Since the bombings in Uganda, Kenyan security officials have been on heightened alert, fearing that Somalia's civil war could spill into Kenya. In recent months, al-Shabab has staged several cross-border raids into the northeastern part of the country, where hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees live.

African leaders are expected to discuss the civil war at an African Union summit this week in Kampala. The Ugandan bombings were the first major international attacks by the militia, raising fears that Somalia's conflict could destabilize the region.

The militia, which has imposed a strict interpretation of Islam in areas it controls, is seeking to overthrow the weak transitional Somali government.

An African Union peacekeeping force is protecting the government in the sliver of the capital it controls. But medical officials and human rights groups accuse the force of indiscriminately killing hundreds of civilians. Al-Shabab leaders have declared the Ugandan bombings retaliation for the shelling by the peacekeeping force, which is made up of Ugandan and Burundian troops.

On Tuesday, Gen. William E. Ward, who heads U.S. Africa Command, said the U.S. military is prepared to increase its support for the peacekeepers.

"The nations that are contributing forces to . . . the African Union mission in Somalia -- we are working very closely with their logistics, their training, their transportation, information that they would use to be effective in what they do, and we continue looking for ways, based on what they ask us, to enhance these efforts," he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Reuters reported.

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