* Civilians flee fighting, head for centre of capital (Adds Somali defence
minister, al Shabaab comment, fighting)
By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
MOGADISHU, May 23 (Reuters) - African Union and Somali government troops
stepped up their assault on al Shabaab militants in the capital's northern
outskirts on Wednesday, forcing hundreds of families to flee their makeshift
homes and head for the city centre.
The AU force, which already controls most of the capital, is trying to
advance through the Afgoye corridor, once a rural area northwest of
Mogadishu but now home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis uprooted from
The corridor, believed to house the largest concentration of internally
displaced people in the world, stretches some 30 km northwest of Mogadishu
to the al Shabaab stronghold of Afgoye.
The AU force began its advance on Tuesday and seized part of Tre Disho
village, 13 km from the capital.
"They have successfully captured some new territories towards Afgoye, and we
are hopeful in the next 24 hours or 48 hours we will definitely capture
Afgoye and even go further," Somali Defence Minister Hussein Arab Essa said
in Addis Ababa.
"The targets are to make sure that we connect all regions of Somalia. That
operation is actually on target," he told Reuters.
Burundian troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were
advancing from Tre Disho towards Elasha and Afgoye on Wednesday but were
meeting resistance from al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels, their spokesman
Captain Ndayiragije Come said.
"We want to capture Elasha and if not delayed by resistance we shall capture
Afgoye. We captured two anti-aircraft guns hooked on cars and destroyed one
yesterday. We also see about 40 bloated dead bodies of al Shabaab lying
under the shrubs. They were killed in yesterday's battle," he said.
Al Shabaab has waged a bloody five-year campaign to topple Somalia's
Western-backed government and impose its harsh interpretation of sharia,
Islamic law, on a country that has been mired in violence for the last two
It still controls swathes of central and southern Somalia but is being
gradually squeezed out of its strongholds by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops who
have launched their own incursions into Somalia, and is being pushed out of
Mogadishu by AU forces.
Al Shabaab said they had lost four fighters and killed three AU soldiers,
which Come said was untrue. On Tuesday they said they had killed 30
soldiers. It is difficult to verify either side's estimates of casualties,
which are often exaggerated.
"Our enemies are again preparing for more battles but we are ready," Sheikh
Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operations, told
Civilians fleeing the fighting hoped to find safety in central Mogadishu.
"We fled with the children early in the morning," Farhia Aden, a mother of
two, told Reuters in Bakara market. "We couldn't stay there because shells
were landing and bullets were buzzing around us."
The U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somali said prolonged
fighting could displace more people.
"I remain concerned that an escalation of hostilities or a prolonged
operation could lead to displacement, further straining the capacity of
settlements and host communities in Mogadishu or driving people away from
the life-saving help they require," Mark Bowden said in a statement.
One resident, Hussein Farah, said he had seen many rebels aboard vehicles,
some with machineguns on their shoulders.
"It may take time for the government to control that area," he said at the
Ex-Control checkpoint where Somali soldiers stopped his family from entering
Somali police officer Capt. Ahmed Nour said government forces had blocked
the road because they did not want civilians to get caught in the shooting.
"There is military movement along the road. Many families have already come
in and we shall give access to the remaining ones later when we reopen the
checkpoint," he said.
AMISOM says that securing the Afgoye corridor would enable aid to reach some
400,000 people. In a statement on Wednesday it encouraged people to stay at
home and said its troops were avoiding heavily residential areas near
Afgoye's main road.
A Reuters witness, at an airstrip in Mogadishu where the offensive was
launched, said he had seen two dead Somali soldiers and two wounded
Burundian ones on Tuesday. (Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis
Ababa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by George Obulutsa and Tim Pearce)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Wed May 23 2012 - 16:48:23 EDT