Masked men believed to be Islamic militants dragged the corpses of two soldiers through the streets of the Somali capital and set their bodies on fire Wednesday during fierce battles with government forces trying to consolidate their control of Mogadishu.
Medical officials at Mogadishu’s three hospitals said they had recorded at least seven dead and 36 wounded by early afternoon in some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu since the Islamic forces were driven out in December. Dahir Mohamed Mohamud Dhere of Medina Hospital said doctors there were treating 36 wounded government soldiers.
An Associated Press photographer saw insurgents drag the bodies of one Ethiopian soldier and one Somali government soldier through southern Mogadishu and set them on fire.
The men dragging the corpses wore blue and white scarves to mask their faces, something characteristic of Mogadishu’s insurgents, who normally carry out their attacks with their faces masked.
Women pounded one of the burning bodies with stones as a handful of young men watched.
Black Hawk down?
A similar scene grabbed the world’s attention after Somali militiamen shot down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in 1993 during a failed American mission to capture a warlord. The images of American troops being dragged through the streets led to the eventual withdrawal of U.N. forces and years of anarchy in Somalia.
Dahir Mohamed Mohamud Dhere of Medina Hospital said that his institution was treating 36 wounded government soldiers.
Ahmed Mohamed Botaan, a clan elder whose neighborhood was turned into a battleground, told the AP by phone that he counted 15 bodies, seven of government troops.
Ethiopia sent soldiers into Somalia in December to help defeat an Islamic movement that threatened to destroy the internationally recognized government. The defeated Islamic forces started an insurgency to overthrow the government and drive out the Ethiopian troops, firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at the Somali forces and their Ethiopian allies almost daily.
Somali leaders have said in recent weeks that they were preparing a major offensive to stop the growing insurgency.
Somali and Ethiopian forces supported by tanks and armored vehicles entered an insurgent stronghold in southern Mogadishu before dawn and were met by hundreds of masked insurgents.
“Ethiopian tanks rolled out of the former Defense Ministry and moved into the nearby Shirkole area, which is seen as the stronghold of the insurgent groups, and they met with stiff resistance,” said Ali Haji Jama, a resident of the southern neighborhood at the center of the fighting.
Other witnesses said minibuses filled with insurgents were racing through the city to reach Shirkole and defend against the Ethiopian advance. The same minibuses were used to carry away casualties, said Muqtar Abdulahi Dahir, a Mogadishu businessman who witnessed the fighting.
Somalia’s government began the operation about midnight Tuesday at the former Defense Ministry headquarters and plans to move forces into other parts of the capital, said Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia’s ambassador in neighboring Kenya.
Nur said that the government push was aimed at stopping insurgents attacking government buildings. He denied that any Ethiopian troops were involved in the operation.
A group of insurgents, Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations, claimed they were the target of the government offensive, which has also been reported in northern parts of the capital.
The group said in a statement posted on the Web site of Somalia’s routed Islamic movement that it had repulsed the attacks and an unspecified number of government soldiers had surrendered.
Insurgents expect ‘decisive’ fighting
The group said that it expected “decisive” fighting in coming days.
Security officials arrested two journalists working for local Shabelle Radio when they went to Mogadishu’s main airport to attend a news conference with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, said Mohamed Amin, the station’s editor.
Amin told the AP that he did not know where they were taken or why, adding that other journalists who went to the venue were threatened. Some fled when their two colleagues were arrested, he said.
Salah Abdikadir, a senior intelligence officer, confirmed that security officials had picked up the journalists but declined to give any details.
The African Union has deployed a small peacekeeping force to defend the current government.