On The Front Lines Of A Battle For Mogadishu In Somalia, African Union troops are locked in a conflict against a ragtag Islamist force called al-Shabab. The mostly Ugandan soldiers aim to push the insurgents out of the capital and create safe space for civilians. But it's a slow and brutal war, being fought house to house.
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On The Front Lines Of A Bloody Battle For Mogadishu

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On The Front Lines Of A Bloody Battle For Mogadishu

On The Front Lines Of A Bloody Battle For Mogadishu

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Somalia has now been in a civil war for two decades. These days African union troops are defending a feeble government hunkered down in the capital Mogadishu. The African soldiers are mostly Ugandan and largely funded by the U.S. The goal is to push Islamist fighters out of the capital and to make life safe there for civilians. NPR's Frank Langfitt is the first American reporter to spend a night on the front lines of this urban battle with Ugandan troops. He provides this rare, first-hand account of Mogadishu's grinding street war.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRE)

FRANK LANGFITT: It's near sunset in Shakara, one of Mogadishu's countless, bombed-out neighborhoods. Ugandan troops have just wrapped up a house-to-house battle with the rag-tag Islamist force called al- Shabab. The group claims allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab is trying to seize control of Mogadishu and turn Somalia into a strict, Islamic state.

ANTHONY LUKWAGO MBUUSI: My name is Major Anthony Lukwago Mbuusi. And I'm the commanding officer of 19 infantry battalion.

LANGFITT: I met Major Anthony - as everyone calls him - on a visit to Mogadishu last fall. He's a top Ugandan commander here. Major Anthony wants to show me the progress he's made today and the difficult conditions his troops face. He walks down into the battle-field, a valley of sand and scrub. We duck into an abandoned house with pock- marked walls.

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: This place where we are, it was in the hands of the insurgents this morning. Now, you can see from here to the other places, about 70 meters away.

LANGFITT: How far do these tunnels go?

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: They're long. I don't know up to where.

LANGFITT: So, they got in here by tunneling into the house.

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: Yes, that's how they do. Because, of course, if they go through the open ground, they will lose their lives.

LANGFITT: Ugandan troops said al-Shabab's main supply trench runs five miles. We continue down the valley until we come within maybe a football field of al-Shabab fighters. And, now, they see us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT AND THE SOUND OF PLASTER FALLING)

LANGFITT: An AK-47 round smacks into a wall above our heads. The impact sends plaster sprinkling down the side of the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LANGFITT: Pinned down, I crouch behind a wall. Major Anthony, standing out in the open, seems unfazed. He says his troops will take out the sniper.

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry. The boys will deal with him. Don't mind, don't mind,

LANGFITT: Then, it gets worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRE)

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: That's a mortar, that's a mortar.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LANGFITT: The tour is now definitely over.

LUKWAGO MBUUSI: We go, we go, we go, we're safe, we're safe.

LANGFITT: So, what just happened there?

MBUSSI: I'm suspecting the counter-attack and that's part of it. But there was also a mortar which landed.

LANGFITT: How far was it?

MBUSSI: The mortar just landed about 10 meters away from us.

LANGFITT: That evening, Major Anthony retreats to his command center, an abandoned villa. AK-47 rounds have chewed up a ficus tree in the courtyard outside. Major Anthony thinks al-Shabab will try to retake some positions they lost today. And they do, beginning around midnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LANGFITT: Major Anthony stands in the dark on the villa's veranda in just his boxers. A radio to his ear, he listens to reports from the field. The attack is brief, and, Major Anthony says, unsuccessful. But there is bad news.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CONVERSATION IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

MBUSSI: Among one of the mortars they fired, it landed in a civilian populated area and landed in one family. Someone has lost life and others have been injured.

LANGFITT: Whose mortar?

MBUSSI: From the insurgents, from al-Shabab.

LANGFITT: Civilian casualties from mortar fire are common here. Somalis mostly blame the African Union. A recent Human Rights Watch report says al-Shabab stages hit-and-run attacks to provoke the African Union to retaliate and strike neighborhoods. Quote, "peacekeepers typically respond to the attacks with a sustained barrage of heavy artillery, used indiscriminately."

NATHAN MUGISHA: My troops have good, very clear instructions, there are no fire zones. Markets, hospitals, schools, residential areas.

LANGFITT: That's Ugandan Major General Nathan Mugisha. He oversees the 8,000 African Union troops here. He admits his soldiers occasionally mortar civilians by accident.

MUGISHA: There are some incidents which happen. But those are isolated. The picture you are getting is largely exaggerated.

LANGFITT: Back at Major Anthony's villa, dawn comes. And with it the distinctive sounds of Mogadishu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING FROM MOSQUE, A SINGLE GUNSHOT, COCK CROWS)

LANGFITT: We spend the day, roaming the battlefield, weaving through abandoned houses, slipping through holes in walls. I saw these areas in September. It's clear Major Anthony has picked up of territory. And he's getting help. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama is a moderate Islamist group here. Its 1,500-man militia fights side-by-side with Ugandan troops. Abdulkadir Maollin Noor is the group's spiritual leader. He joins Major Anthony in a bunker. They peer through a gun sight and study al-Shabab positions.

MBUSSI: Tomorrow when you get time, I will show you a different one which they have done on that side.

ABDULKADIR MAOLLIN NOOR: Inside the houses? Underneath?

LANGFITT: Al-Shabab has threatened neighboring countries and claimed credit for bombing the Ugandan capital of Kampala last summer. Noor says Ahlu Sunna - which goes by the initials ASWJ - is totally different: a moderate, national movement.

MAOLLIN NOOR: Never ever compare ASWJ to Al Shabab - those are terrorists and we are just conservative Muslims who wants their government to function.

LANGFITT: For Noor, this war isn't just about faith. It's also personal. He lost his house to al-Shabab last fall.

MAOLLIN NOOR: This destroyed building, three floors. There we used to have our kitchen

LANGFITT: That's where you lived?

MAOLLIN NOOR: Yes.

LANGFITT: As a child?

MAOLLIN NOOR: Yes. And I married here. And I must go back to it.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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