Hundreds of foreigners fighting alongside Somali Islamic insurgents are driving fierce battles against government forces which have killed more than 100 people, the UN envoy to Somalia said today.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdalla said that between 280 and 300 foreign fighters were involved in an attempted coup last weekend against President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamic leader.
Concern that the government might fall is mounting. Observers fear that if al-Qaida-linked insurgents seize the capital they will gain a safe haven on the Horn of Africa.
Somalia's coastline borders an important sea trade route and the horn juts into the Indian Ocean just below the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.
The government controls only one major road in the capital, Mogadishu, along with some government installations, with the assistance of about 4,350 African Union troops.
The fighting has frightened even longtime residents of the battle-scarred capital. During a lull today people streamed out of their homes seeking food or safer quarters.
Ould-Abdalla said some of the foreigners were mercenaries and others were Islamic ideologues. He said he had offered to help Somalia's hardline Islamic leaders remove their names from a UN Security Council list of terrorists if they will work for peace.
"It is not in killing their own people that they will solve this problem," Ould-Abdalla said, referring to the terrorist designation. "On the contrary."
One on the UN list is hardline leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of a faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. The leader of the other faction is Somalia's current president, the more moderate Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
Aweys has been based in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, since the umbrella Islamic group he led with Ahmed was ousted from Mogadishu and southern Somalia in 2006 by Ethiopian troops.
Ahmed returned to Mogadishu as president in February – and Ethiopia withdrew its troops from Somalia – under a deal mediated by Ould-Abdalla.
Aweys returned to Mogadishu last month, saying he wanted the African Union forces out of Somalia as well.
During this week's fighting some government troops have defected to the insurgents, although the government denies it. The local television station HornAfrik has run video of Islamist fighters displaying 17 military vehicles with government plates they said were brought over by defecting soldiers.
Ahmed's spokesman, Abdulkadir Darnaamik, told Associated Press late last night that the insurgents had taken two government buildings, including Mogadishu Stadium, where the government kept weapons.
"No one has got the upper hand," said Darnaamik.
Residents have been fleeing for days, sleeping under trees and sheltering children under scraps of plastic. The streets are eerily quiet, the shops shuttered; even Friday's calls to prayer have been silenced in some areas of northern Mogadishu.
Mother-of-two Hawo Hussein said she was going to stay with relatives in a safer part of the capital. "There is no hope that the two sides will stop fighting," she said.
If the violence gets worse, she added, she would flee to Kenya, where 250,000 Somali refugees already live.
Residents described seeing insurgents, some with turbans wrapped around their faces, careering around the streets in pickup trucks bristling with weapons.
The few people who have remained to look after houses search for food during lulls in the violence. They say the fighting is even more intense than when the Ethiopian troops supporting the government invaded in 2006.
The election of a moderate Islamist as president and the decision to implement Sharia law has failed to persuade the most hardline elements to give up their struggle. Somalia, torn apart by clan militias, has not had an effective government for 18 years.