Image: Bodies at the Mogadishu airport
Farah Abdi Warsameh  /  AP
Two bodies lie in front of the Mogadishu airport gate on Thursday. A suicide car bomber and gunmen attacked the front gate to Mogadishu's seaside airport on Thursday, triggering an explosion and gunbattle, officials said. Several people were killed, including security forces.
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updated 9/9/2010 7:07:24 PM ET 2010-09-09T23:07:24

Terrified Somalis fleeing an offensive by Islamist insurgents in their capital described a hellish scene of putrefying corpses, graves hastily dug in gardens and neighborhoods flattened by mortars.

Some of the lucky ones who fled Mogadishu have arrived in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya, but poor families unable to take everyone faced agonizing choices over who could go and who must be left behind.

"This is the worst I have ever seen it," said 74-year-old Abdullahi Mohammed Salah, who lost three sons in the past five months to a mortar round and gunfire. "Before it was just bullets. Now they are launching mortars everywhere."

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Despite nearly 20 years of warfare, Salah had never fled Mogadishu. But after losing his sons he bought bus tickets for himself, six grandchildren and a daughter-in-law. He couldn't afford to take all his relatives.

"We had to leave more than 20 behind," Salah said as he stroked his red hennaed beard. "I just brought the most vulnerable."

On Thursday, Mogadishu's airport was attacked. Suicide bombers set off a car bomb at the airport gates, allowing a second explosive-packed vehicle to speed toward the terminal in the chaos. At least 14 people were killed in the attack, claimed by the Islamist al-Shabab militia

Somalis who reached the swollen refugee camp at Dadaab this week say bodies are rotting in Mogadishu's streets and hospitals are overflowing, with wounded covering the floors and lying outside.

Salah and his family, who arrived at the camp Wednesday night after a three-day journey, spent the night sleeping in the open on the sand.

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Located 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Somali border, Dadaab is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with nearly 300,000 inhabitants living in a cramped area meant to house a third that many. About 6,500 Somalis arrived here in August alone.

The refugees live 10 to a tent or in makeshift shelters made of plastic sheeting stretched over twigs or crudely built mud huts. The only vegetation is a smattering of thorn bushes and trees that dot the arid landscape.

Salah and another refugee, Isse Mohamed Musa, described near continuous fighting over the last 10 days in Mogadishu. Bodies and body parts lay outside their houses for days, they said, swelling in the heat before fighters eventually came to dig shallow graves.

"We tied cloths over our faces to try to hide the smell," said Musa, who hid with his wife and 11 other family members for days in their house, often running out of food and water.

"The children were crying because of the hunger and the bombs. And we didn't even have water to give them. Imagine," said Musa, whose children range in age from 1 to 20 years old. "When we had something, we started with the youngest and worked up until we ran out."

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The U.N. estimates that more than 230 people have died in clashes since Aug. 23, when al-Shabab started an offensive with a suicide attack on a hotel in the capital that killed 32 people. Government forces, an allied militia and African Union peacekeepers are fighting back while gradually expanding the number of peacekeepers' bases. Civilians are often hit by mortar rounds and bullets.

Some refugees came to Dadaab in search of loved ones who vanished in the fighting.

Among them is Aden Daqane Ibrahim, who said he returned from his job as a mechanic at Mogadishu's Bakara market last month to find five neighbors' houses flattened by mortars and his own home abandoned. He dug out his neighbors and buried them, then searched for his parents, wife and two young sons for two weeks.

Not finding them, the 35-year-old slowly made his way south, sometimes walking, always asking for them along the dusty road.

"I hope I find them here. If I don't I will go back to search for them," said Ibrahim, squatting on sandals made of old tires.

Others came to the crowded camp to escape al-Shabab, which carries out public amputations, whippings and stonings. The insurgents have refused to allow foreign aid groups to distribute food and medicine, banned women from working and demanded families hand over their sons to be fighters.

Maryan Omar Rashid, a 50-year-old vegetable seller in the southern town of Kismayo, said the insurgents ordered her to stop going to the market, saying she should not have contact with men. Her earnings of around $3 a day were all the family had. They cut back to one meal a day. Then there was nothing.

"The children were getting thinner and thinner," said Rashid. At Dadaab, she will get a monthly ration of vegetable oil, cereals and corn-soya blend. She hopes to earn enough money so that her children can join her.

Others, like farmer Abdiaziz Mohamed Mungaza, are too afraid to utter the word al-Shabab even in the camps, referring to the militia as "them" or "those people." Refugees believe disguised militiamen move among them.

"If they want to take a child, they will take it," he said, his wife glancing around to see who was watching.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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