Battles Escalate In Mogadishu; Thousands Flee

There's been a surge in fighting in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. While insurgents battle the transitional government, tens of thousands of people have fled the city. NPR's Gwen Thompkins talks to host Liane Hansen about the situation.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Heavy fighting continued last night in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, as Islamic insurgents fired mortar bombs at the presidential palace and attacked African Union peacekeepers. The insurgents and the transitional government have brushed each other back in key areas, but neither side has been able to claim victory. As the skirmishes continue, a humanitarian crisis is building as tens of thousands of people have fled the capital.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins joins us from Nairobi, Kenya. Hello, Gwen.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit, after weeks of losses, Somalia's transitional government launched a major offensive late last week. How does it stand at this point?

THOMPKINS: Well, the fighting in Mogadishu is a curious kind of fighting, Liane. A lot seems to be done for symbolic value, so government forces made some incursions into locations held by Islam's extremists in Mogadishu. They took over some police stations and other sites. But it appears as if they occupied these locations for some hours and then they left.

So, a coalition of extremists is still apparently holding much of what it gained over the past two weeks in the city. They control three of the four main arteries into Mogadishu. And on Saturday, as you mentioned in your intro, they did lob mortars at the presidential palace, which they badly want. But no one was injured in the mortar attack and, you know, Somali government forces are protecting the presidential palace, you know, as are those African Union troops.

HANSEN: Gwen, Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is considered a moderate Islamist. He has the backing of the west, but he's fighting many of his old comrades now, and they are considered Islamist extremists. Who are they?

THOMPKINS: As I mentioned earlier, there's an Islamist coalition that is fighting Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the current president of Somalia. And this coalition has a number of different groups who are members. The most prominent of those groups are two - one being al-Shabab. And al-Shabab was the military -the fighting wing - of what was the called the Islamic Courts Union, which was a group of Islamists who controlled Mogadishu back in 2006. The U.S. says that they have ties to al-Qaida.

The second group is called Hizbul Islam, and they are also a fighting group. But they are led by one of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's former allies, a person called Sheikh Aweys. These two groups, al-Shabab and Sheikh Aweys' group, Hizbul Islam, are united in their common purpose to destroy Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and this transitional government.

But it's important to note, Liane, that these two groups do not get along with one another. And if they do succeed in getting the president out of the presidential palace and coming to power, then they are widely expected to fight among themselves for ultimate power.

HANSEN: How much concern is there that Somalia may become a haven for al-Qaida if the government doesn't win?

THOMPKINS: Well, there's a lot of concern outside of Somalia. I mean, certainly the United States is concerned, other western countries are concerned, those in Europe, the European donors to Somalia, of course, as well as the United Nations. It wasn't that long ago when Osama bin Laden actually gave some encouraging words to al-Shabab, which, of course, you know, caused a lot of anxiety in this part of the world.

Also, Somalia's direct neighbors are very concerned: Kenya, Ethiopia. These are countries that, you know, that have their own problems, and they don't want to see the rise of, you know, of anarchy to the degree in Somalia that is actually becoming a training ground for terrorism that can spill over their borders.

HANSEN: What's day-to-day life like in Mogadishu with this exodus of civilians?

THOMPKINS: You know, day-to-day life goes on in Mogadishu, irrespective of the fighting. There are certain sectors in Mogadishu that are controlled by the Islamist extremists or they're controlled by the government, but no sector is 100 percent controlled by either. And so, in the meantime, all those people who live in the city - and this is a fairly large city of hundreds of thousands of residents - they go about their daily lives.

The African Union peacekeepers, they control the seaport at Mogadishu, which is, of course, a major seaport, as well as the airport. And the African Union peacekeepers tell me that not one plane has been diverted or delayed by any of the fighting that's taken place over the past two weeks.

HANSEN: NPR's Gwen Thompkins, she spoke to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Gwen, thank you.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Liane.

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