Islamic insurgents fired mortar rounds at Somalia's presidential palace and clashed with government forces Wednesday, leaving at least five civilians dead a day after Ethiopian troops handed over security duties.
Government soldiers retaliated after the attack on the palace and some of their mortar rounds hit the capital's largest market, Bakara, said Farah Mumin, a salesman at the market who said he saw three civilians killed and nine others wounded.
"The scene was very horrific and everyone ran from the market, some of them leaving their shops open," said Fadumo Sahal, another witness.
Elsewhere, two male teenagers were killed when a mortar struck them as they ran to seek cover in a building, said Dahir Absuge, a resident who saw what happened from his house.
Descent into chaos?
The violence comes a day after neighboring Ethiopia handed over security duties following a two-year deployment in Somalia. The move has raised fears that Somalia, already fighting an Islamic insurgency and rampant piracy, could collapse into chaos if extremists with alleged al-Qaida links move to seize power.
In the past year, thousands of civilians have been killed in fighting, particularly in the capital, and hundreds of thousands have fled the violence.
It was unclear when all the thousands of Ethiopians will have departed. They were pulling out in stages and gave no exact dates for security reasons. Residents said Ethiopian troops had vacated two bases on Wednesday.
Separately, Islamic insurgents attacked other Ethiopian troops withdrawing from a key road junction in southern Mogadishu. Insurgents and Ethiopians rarely comment on their casualties.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when rival warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.
Its weak U.N.-backed government had called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group — which included the al-Shabab extremists at the center of the current fighting — that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months.
The Ethiopians announced late last year they would end their unpopular presence as demanded under an October power-sharing deal signed between the Somali government and a relatively moderate faction of the Islamists.
Fears of a power vacuum
But the Ethiopian pullout has sparked fears of a power vacuum because few expect the government can ensure security even with the help of the Islamist faction with which it has agreed to share power. The government controls only pockets of the capital, Mogadishu, and Baidoa, where parliament sits — and has tried to rule without a president for weeks.
Rival Islamic groups control other areas of southern and central Somalia, with the al-Shabab making the most dramatic gains in recent months. The al-Shabab's push also has fueled fears of extremist Islamists gaining power in Somalia.
The U.S. State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida, which the group denies.
Meanwhile, gunmen abducted an Egyptian teacher in Somalia's relatively peaceful northwestern breakaway republic where such kidnappings are rare, officials said Wednesday.
Mohamed Mustafa Ibrahim was stopped late Tuesday as he went to a mosque in Burao, located in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.
He was bundled into a car and taken to an undisclosed location, said Jama Abdullahi, a senior government official.
Police were searching for the kidnappers, said Ahmed Saqadhe Dubad, Somaliland's police chief.
Last year saw a rise in kidnappings in Somalia with foreigners often being targeted for ransoms on land and off Somalia's lawless coast, where pirates are holding about a dozen ships. At least six foreign aid workers and journalists remain in captivity in Somalia.
However, it is rare for abductions to take place in northwestern region of Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 and has its own regularly elected government, parliament and judiciary. The breakaway republic has avoided much of the chaos and anarchy that exists in the rest of the country.