STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
We're going next to one of the world's longest-running and least-covered wars in Somalia. In recent weeks, insurgents have bombarded the Somali capital, Mogadishu. They're challenging an extremely fragile government that's backed by the United States. The militant group is known as al-Shabaab, and they want to create a strict Muslim state. The main thing standing in their way appears to be about 7,000 African peacekeeping troops. NPR's Frank Langfitt spent several days traveling with African union forces and sent this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
FRANK LANGFITT: I'm standing in a pocked-marked building that used to be the old traffic police headquarters in Mogadishu. It's now one of the many front lines in the battle here. Troops took it over, I believe, four or five weeks ago. And they're using it to defend the port, where they bring in a lot of ammunition and food, things like that. Today's a relatively quiet day. There are a number of snipers up high in the building who are just exchanging fire with some Shabaab.
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LANGFITT: African Union troops are showing a group of reporters their positions in abandoned buildings. Many buildings in Mogadishu have gaping holes, creating sight lines for snipers. A soldier alerts me I'm in one right now.
Unidentified Man (Soldier): Be careful. Don't stand there.
LANGFITT: OK, thank you. I'll move back.
The hallway is smeared with dried blood, where an African Union soldier was dragged away after being shot. We crawl out to a sniper position on a sandbagged balcony overlooking the crumbling skyline. I crouch next to Captain Robert Businge.
How man many front lines do you have in Mogadishu?
ROBERT BUSINGE: So many. So many. So we deploy...
LANGFITT: In addition to the port, African Union troops control Mogadishu's airport and key roads on a stretch of land bordering the Indian Ocean. Otherwise, they're mostly surrounded by al-Shabaab.
The African Union mission is the latest attempt to bring stability to Somalia. Civil wars plagued the country for nearly two decades. A weak, UN-backed transitional government has spent three years trying to establish rule with little success. African Union troops provide the government protection. Most of the soldiers are from Uganda, like Captain Businge.
How hard is it to fight to fight al-Shabaab?
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BUSINGE: These are terrorist. You know, fighting terrorists and fighting in the new built up areas is not as easy as in the jungle and isolated places. You find there are civilians.
LANGFITT: Al-Shabaab has spent years digging tunnels under neighborhoods here so its fighters can move from house to house unseen. They've also tunneled under roads, creating traps that swallow African Union tanks. Some members of al-Shabaab want to take their battle beyond Mogadishu and attack American allies in East Africa.
BUSINGE: It's from an al-Shabaab website, and depicts an execution.
So there's a guy in a white t-shirt, and they have a knife.
BUSINGE: They slaughtered, and that is their way of instilling fear among the population.
Al-Shabaab has been on a rampage in recent weeks. It attacked the airport and blew up a hotel in a government-controlled neighborhood. More than 30 people died, including six lawmakers. But African Union forces insist they're gaining ground and have set up a series of new forward bases in recent months.
We're now wending our way through abandoned homes, which, weeks ago, were in enemy hands. African Union soldiers knocked through the walls of the houses and courtyards, then they slip through, hidden from enemy snipers. Major Barigye Ba-Hoku is the African Union spokesman here.
BARIGYE BA: You move from building to building, you're fighting from street to street. But sometimes, you cannot expose yourself dealing your movements on the streets, so what do you do? Break into a wall of an adjacent building, go into the next building, check it out, hold it, consolidate it.
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LANGFITT: But Major Ba-Hoku says there aren't enough soldiers to hold areas once the army takes them. The African Union is asking Western powers to fund another 12,000 troops. Ba-Hoku says they need even more.
BA: If we got 20,000, then we'd have the whole of the country, and possibly would relieve the worries of so many people in the world about this place being a growing hub for international terror networks.
LANGFITT: African Union soldiers are making some effort to win over Somalis. They've set up hospitals that treat thousands a month. They've also tried to support the government's fledgling army, but it hasn't been easy. Somali soldiers often go unpaid and retreat from positions with no notice. The government itself is holed up in a few city blocks, where it takes mortar fire a couple of times a week.
Maryan Hassan is a street vendor in Hamarweyne, a government-controlled neighborhood. She doesn't see African Union troops as her defenders. Hassan says she resents them, for firing mortars into neighborhoods and killing ordinary people.
MARYAN HASSAN: (Through translator) The African Union troops in Mogadishu, when the fighting starts, they shell where the civilians live, because al-Shabaab is firing from there.
LANGFITT: Last month, al-Shabaab shelled Somalia's parliament building. Hassan was visiting the Bakara market that afternoon. Bakara is Somalia's main market and an al-Shabaab stronghold. Hassan - and other witnesses - said the African Union shelled the market in retaliation, killing members of a local family in their home. Hassan says when she sees African Union troops, she flees.
HASSAN: (Through translator) When I always see them moving around in their big tanks and huge vehicles, I ask myself: Will Shabaab target them, and will I be hurt in the cross fire? So then, I run away from where they are. I don't like them at all.
LANGFITT: Hassan is wearing a black hijab and a bright, pink scarf. She sells women's toiletries - including lipstick and face cream - from a wooden cart. She says she hates al-Shabaab. The group opposes women using make up, let alone doing business. Hassan knows if al-Shabaab takes over, she'll be unemployed. Still, she says she would prefer the group come to power - if only to end the carnage.
HASSAN: (Through translator) If al-Shabaab takes over, it will be safer. Yes, there will be problems, but it won't be like when the African Union is shelling civilians.
MICHAEL ONDOGA: We don't hit civilians with mortars. They are not meant for civilians.
LANGFITT: This is Colonel Michael Ondoga, a top African union commander. He says people like Maryan Hassan are mistaken. Ondoga says many groups in Mogadishu - including clan militias - fire mortars. He insists his soldiers never shell civilian areas.
What about the bakara market?
ONDOGA: The bakara market is out of bounds. We don't fire bakara market. Wherever there are civilians, we cannot fire.
LANGFITT: A couple of hours later, roaming through a neighborhood, we stumble upon an African Union mortar position. Nearby is a piece of wood with a several numbers on it: They're mortar settings for striking a target about a mile away. The target, it reads: bakara market.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And I'm looking here at a photo of a pickup truck, machine gun mounted on the back and African Union solider at the trigger, one of the photos that Frank has sent us of the fighting around Mogadishu. You can see them at npr.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.