Somali insurgents vowed on Wednesday to intensify their attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as the capital erupted in violence that forced residents to cower in their homes for hours.
Also, France's Foreign Ministry said pirates off Somalia seized a sailboat carrying two French citizens and took them hostage. Wednesday's hijacking is the ninth by Somali pirates since July 20, and occurred in the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and is one of the world's busiest waterways. A Cabinet minister of the semiautonomous northeastern Somalia region of Puntland, Ahmed Said Awnur, said his government had received information about the hijacking but had no details.
In Somalia, citizens suffer near daily explosions of bloodshed, and thousands of civilians have been killed since Islamic fighters began an Iraq-style insurgency in December 2006, after they were driven from power in Mogadishu and much of the south.
"If we die while fasting for the sake of Allah, we will go to heaven," a 26-year-old Islamic fighter, Abdi Yusuf, told The Associated Press. "So there is no reason why we shouldn't intensify the fighting."
Ramadan began on Monday, and Wednesday's violence killed at least four people, although the death toll could be higher, witnesses said.
Military spokesman Mohmoud Dhere declined to comment on casualties. But he criticized the insurgents for "destabilizing the country."
The battles started in the early morning and continued unabated for several hours. Some residents of the capital, Mogadishu, fled their homes to other parts of the city, carrying their belongings. It appeared to be the most sustained fighting in Mogadishu since Aug. 21, when four hours of fighting outside the presidential palace killed 12 people.
The insurgents are trying to topple the government and drive out Ethiopian troops who are propping up the administration.
During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to abstain during daylight hours from food, drink, smoking and sex, to focus on spiritual introspection. But the Islamists' spokesman Abdirahin Issa Adow said fighters have "decided to redouble attacks against the Ethiopians and their stooges during the holy month of Ramadan."
He said the Ramadan attacks do not violate the Quran because his fighters are battling "enemies of Allah."
Somalia has been at war since 1991, when clan-based militias ousted a socialist dictator and then fought for power among themselves. The conflict is complicated by clan loyalties and the involvement of archenemies Eritrea and Ethiopia, who back opposite sides in the fighting.
The last U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia included American troops who arrived in 1992 and tried to arrest warlords and create a government. That experiment in nation-building ended in October 1993, when fighters shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter during a battle that killed 18 American soldiers.
More than a decade later, Ethiopian troops are helping Somalia's shaky transitional government push the Islamists from power in Mogadishu and much of the south, but have failed to establish security or improve living standards.