Somali civilians suffering as insurgency escalates in Mogadishu (Somalia)

MOGADISHU, Somalia: Mohamed Hussein heard the grenade explode and he froze. ussein, 39, knew what was coming next, because he has been through it before: gunfire coming from every direction as soldiers frantically tried to kill the person who had thrown the weapon.


When the shots finally stopped, Hussein saw four bloodied corpses, all of them civilians caught in the crossfire. It's a tragic, common story in this capital, where streets are marked with blood and the sight of burned out cars is common. Nearly 3,000 civilians have died since December as Islamic insurgents launched a guerrilla war against the government and its Ethiopian military backers, human rights groups say.
"The whole time I was frozen in terror and shock," Hussein said of the attack last month. "Government soldiers fired in every direction, killing four innocent people on the spot."
The seemingly endless stream of death is shocking even in this bloodstained city: pregnant women, the elderly, entire families - all victims of Somalia's devastating violence. Last month, five children who stopped to play with a land mine - apparently mistaking the device for a toy - were blown away when it detonated.
Somalia and Ethiopian officials refused to say how many of their troops have been wounded or killed, and no other groups have compiled figures. The chaos makes counting difficult, but witness reports indicate the numbers of combatants killed are far fewer than the civilian casualties. Somali officials say they are desperately trying to pacify Mogadishu, but they need to wipe out insurgents.
Abdi Haji Gobdon, the government spokesman, refused further comment on civilian deaths.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has said the fighting in the city has violated international humanitarian law. "When you have a pitched battle going on in a city full of civilians, that is not in accordance with the Geneva Conventions," he told The Associated Press in May.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. The U.N.-backed transitional government formed in 2004 has struggled to assert any real control.
A radical Islamic group with ties to al-Qaida ruled the capital and much of southern Somalia for six months last year, but they were driven out in December when Ethiopia - the region's military powerhouse - sent troops here. Remnants of the group have launched an Iraq-style insurgency, with near-daily roadside bombs, land mines and grenade attacks.
The attacks generally aim for Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies. Yusuf Osman Hussein, a spokesman for Mogadishu police, said civilians are so often caught because officers and soldiers simply don't know the people they're targeting. The insurgents wear no uniforms.
"The attackers are in civilians clothes, so it would be difficult for the soldiers to recognize and chase them," he said. "For their own defense they open fire, that is why the civilians are caught in the crossfire."
He also said trained officers - unlike civilians - know how to recognize an imminent attack.
"The kind of bombs (insurgents) throw at the soldiers hiss seconds before they go off, and the soldiers immediately take positions and duck," he said. "The untrained civilians are mainly caught."
Ali Hassan, 44, said a roadside bomb went off near him recently, prompting a swift barrage of gunfire from soldiers.
"I was a breadwinner of large family before government soldiers crippled me," said Hassan, 44. "I am always in a state of shock and sorrow, because I lost my precious leg. All this I blame on government soldiers."
Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairman of Elman Human Rights, an independent Somali group, said 2,894 civilians have been killed since December. He said his organization collected the figures from hospitals, local residents and its own recording of burials in the Mogadishu.
A National Reconciliation Conference - which also has been the target of insurgents - has been going on since last month, but leaders of the Islamic group have not joined and are largely in hiding.
On Wednesday, officials said delegates at the reconciliation conference have signed a truce - but it does not include the Islamic militants who have been waging an insurgency.
The agreement was signed last week and took effect Aug. 1, which has now been designated a "national day of forgiveness," Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia's ambassador to Kenya, said in Nairobi.
Nur did not say how the truce would be enforced, but said Somalia's Islamic militants "are not for peace."

Von:, by Salad Duhul, Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Tom Maliti

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