Firing rocket-propelled grenades and heavy submachine guns, Islamist fighters seized the police headquarters at the heart of the government's stronghold in Mogadishu on Thursday in a bold attack that witnesses said killed two soldiers and two policemen.
The insurgents have tried many times to attack the heavily guarded K4 district but Thursday's raid was their first major success. The ambush could not be immediately be verified by Somali officials.
It came a day after a bloody Wednesday in the Horn of Africa nation. Insurgents attacked Ethiopian military convoys in two rural areas, and the soldiers responded by opening fire on civilians in both towns, killing at least 17 villagers total, according to witness accounts.
It was not known how many Ethiopians died in that fighting and the witness accounts could not be verified. Ethiopia, which sent troops into Somalia last year to back up soldiers fighting Islamic insurgents, does not make public its troops' fatalities but the insurgents said one of their regional commanders was killed.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed three Somali soldiers Wednesday, a military officer said. A separate attack on a World Food Program convoy in central Somalia killed a driver, U.N. officials said.
'Fighting was hideous, terrifying'
In the Mogadishu attack Thursday, witnesses said an explosion rocked Makalal Mukrama Road outside police headquarters in K4 district, sending plumes of black smoke into the night air after fighters set ablaze a captured "technical" — a pickup with a submachine gun fixed to its bed.
The blast came after the insurgents seized the police station yelling "God is great," witnesses said.
"The fighting was hideous, terrifying," said resident Hawa Abdi. The gunfire was so heavy that "I thought it would smash the walls of my concrete home."
Resident Elmi Osman said bullets crashed through the window of the house where he lives, killing his aunt and a nephew.
Street vendor Abisaq Mohamed said he saw the bodies of two police officers on Makalal Mukrama Road. He also reported seeing two government soldiers killed, and one insurgent being carried away. The attackers dispersed several hours later, witnesses said.
Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Issa Adow told The Associated Press that his fighters killed eight policemen. He said one Islamist fighter died and two were wounded in the attack.
He also said the Islamists fired mortars into two Ethiopian military bases in the capital — a claim that could not be verified.
In the worst of Wednesday's attacks, suspected insurgents ambushed an Ethiopian convoy with rocket-propelled grenades in the central province of Hiran, witnesses said.
"I saw two Ethiopian military vehicles burning and several soldiers underneath them, but I cannot confirm whether they were dead," Ahmedey Farah Hilowle said by telephone from his village south of the provincial capital, Belet Weyne.
'We inflicted a great loss of lives'
Ethiopian troops retaliated by opening fire, killing eight civilians including a woman who was collecting water from a well, villager Abdisalan Muxsim said. Residents said they found the bodies of six insurgents.
But Adow, the Islamists' spokesman, said only two insurgents were killed, including a regional commander.
International human rights groups have accused Ethiopian troops of targeting civilians out of frustration over their failure to halt insurgents who have adopted Iraq-style tactics, such as roadside bombs and occasional suicide attacks.
"We inflicted a great loss of lives on them (Ethiopians) and destroyed their vehicles, but in retaliation the enemy troops mercilessly killed civilians," Adow said.
Also Wednesday, Ethiopian troops killed nine civilians in the Lower Shabelle region after suspected insurgents ambushed a military convoy, witnesses said.
"During the battle, we ran away from our village to the bush," resident Said Abukar Ganey said. "This morning, we came back and we found the bodies of nine of our villagers."
Outside Baidoa, southwest of Mogadishu, a roadside bomb hit a truck carrying Somali soldiers, killing three troops and wounding six, military officer Madey Hassan Nur said.