/ 22 April 2008

Somalia death toll nears 100 with fresh fighting

Militias allied to the Somali government recaptured a southern port from Islamists on Tuesday, taking the death toll from an upsurge of fighting in recent days to nearly 100, witnesses said.

The militias recaptured Guda town, which had been taken by the Islamists’ militant al-Shabaab wing on Monday, after overnight fighting that brought fatalities on both sides.

”The town is now under our control. On both sides, five died and eight were wounded,” militiaman Abdisalan Hassan Bootan told Reuters.

In Mogadishu, eight more corpses were found where Ethiopian troops backing the Somali government clashed with Islamist insurgents over the weekend, taking the total death toll since then to 98, according to a rights group.

”In addition, six other wounded people were also found in those areas of Mogadishu, making the number of wounded people 125 since Saturday so far,” Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairperson of the Elman Human Rights group, said.

Branded terrorists by Washington, al-Shabaab has led an Iraq-style insurgency against the government and its Ethiopian allies since early 2007.

The insurgency began when the Islamic Courts Union, of which al-Shabaab was a part, lost control of Mogadishu.

UN mediation

The recent violence has swelled Somalia’s internal refugee population of about one million. Aid workers say Somalia is one of the world’s worst, yet most neglected, humanitarian crises.

The United Nations is trying to broker peace talks between the warring Somali factions in neighbouring Djibouti on May 10. The Horn of Africa nation has been without central rule and in a near-permanent conflict since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

But the new violence has left talks looking unlikely.

A spokesperson for the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Ibrahim Suley, said the real death toll from the weekend violence in Mogadishu was much higher, and talks with the government had been consequently postponed indefinitely.

”The Ethiopians killed about 200 people and kidnapped 160 others … We will continue fighting the Ethiopians and those under the protection of their tanks. We call on them to repent,” Suley said.

”It is never possible to hold talks with those who killed our people. We had dialogue with the UN over the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and now we decided to put that on hold.”

The new fighting comes as the worst drought in more than a decade grips most of Somalia, the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday.

”If the drought persists in addition to the fighting, we will be confronted with the same situation in 1991/92 when drought and civil strife claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis,” Elisabeth Byrs of OCHA said in Geneva. — Reuters