Rival militia battled with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and assault rifles for control of part of the Somali capital for a third straight day Tuesday. Fighting has killed at least 75 people and wounded more than 100, according to medical workers.
Radical Islamic militiamen will observe a cease-fire from late Tuesday in response to pleas from civilians hit by the violence and members of civil society organizations, Islamic Court Union chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said.
His secular rivals, however, were suspicious of the plan, and leaders were planning to discuss whether to accept the cease-fire offer.
"The Islamists have ran out of ammunition, so they want to get breathing space for mobilization and rearming their militia," said Hussein Gutaale, spokesman of the secular militias.
Medical workers in five hospitals have confirmed that at least 75 people have been killed since fighting began Sunday and more than 100 others have been wounded, according to a joint statement.
Militia commanders, witnesses and hospital officials had said earlier that the fighting killed at least 84 people — 22 Tuesday, nine others overnight, 35 on Monday and 18 Sunday.
Somalia has had no effective central government since 1991, when warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other — carving this nation of an estimated 8 million people into a patchwork of anarchic, clan-based fiefdoms. A U.N.-backed transitional government has based itself in the central city of Baidoa but has so far failed to assert itself elsewhere.
Islamic fundamentalists have portrayed themselves as an alternative capable of bringing order and peace, but they have not hesitated to use force and have allegedly linked up with al-Qaida terrorists.
Civilians in the crossfire
Most of the victims in the most recent fighting were civilians caught in the crossfire, including a 5-month-old baby who was shot in the back, said Shariif Dahir Guure, a nurse at the Shifo Hospital, one of four hospitals that treated most of the wounded.
"The fighters are hiding behind buildings. The fighting is street battle, no side can get the upper hand — the civilians are those suffering most," said Nuur Daqle, a senior commander of the secular militiamen. The force was willing to end the fighting if their rivals accepted a cease-fire, he said.
Fighting briefly erupted in southern Mogadishu on Tuesday, after secular militiamen attacked militia fighters linked to neither side who had prevented them from using a key road for supply operations. Two combatants from the third militia, one of a number of groups that operate in specific neighborhoods and are often fiercely protective of their turf, were killed and four were wounded, resident Sahra Osman said.
The secular Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism militia and the Islamic Court Union militia have been squaring off for several weeks to stake out strategic positions in preparation for a larger battle for control of Mogadishu.
The alliance accuses the rival Islamic militia of sheltering foreign al-Qaida leaders, while the courts accuse the alliance of being pawns of the United States.
Dueling tales of what sparked fighting
Witnesses said the latest fighting began when gunmen working for a militia commander linked to the alliance opened fire on a gun truck carrying the bodyguards of the head of the Islamic Courts Union.
Members of the alliance, however, said they were only defending themselves from an attack by radical militiamen.
Before the start of the latest fighting, at least 120 people had been killed and 70 more wounded since March in similar clashes between the alliance and the Islamic courts' forces. Traditional elders and local chiefs have attempted to organize peaceful negotiations but have repeatedly failed.
"Whenever fighting breaks out between two rival militias, we used to sort it out through traditional means or on tribally based talks," but it is becoming more difficult to mediate between the two sides, said Garad Yussuf Dibad, a well-respected traditional leader.
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, president of the transitional government, said earlier this week that he was concerned about what he believed was U.S. support for the alliance. But U.S. officials have refused to confirm or deny their involvement with the alliance.