The African Union force in Mogadishu said its forces on Monday fought their way into and took over the last militant strongholds in the northern end of Somalia's capital. At least eight civilians and one AU soldier were killed.
Heavy fighting broke out after AU and Somali government forces attacked militant positions following what the AU force said were the deaths of at least 12 Somali civilians because of militants' mortars over the weekend.
Residents in Mogadishu's northern neighborhoods fled explosions and gunfire as the troops made a push toward positions held by al-Shabab militants. Civilians often suffer heavily from the fighting in Mogadishu. Monday was no different, with at least eight killed and 20 wounded. It is difficult to know if civilian deaths were caused by pro-government or militant forces.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab fled Mogadishu in August in what its leaders said was a tactical pullout. But the militant group returned in a big way last week, setting off a truck bomb that killed more than 100 people as students tried to learn if they had won a scholarship to attend school in Turkey.
The AU force on Monday said the latest military battle was launched to push militants back from a range where their mortars can hit civilians. Spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said 12 civilians were killed Sunday from such attacks. Ankunda said late Monday that the pro-government troops succeeded in taking over the last al-Shabab strongholds in northeast Mogadishu.
"The outer north and eastern fringes of the city must still be cleared, but key ground and buildings are no longer under the control of the extremists," Ankunda said. "It has been a big achievement to remove (al-Shabab) from the city, and put an end to the fighting that disrupted so many lives. But the challenge is now to protect civilians from the sort of terror attack we saw last week."
Ankunda said one AU soldier died in the fighting. Ali Muse, director of Mogadishu's ambulance service, said eight civilians were killed and 20 wounded in Monday's fighting, including several who bled to death because ambulances could not reach them.
An al-Shabab leader, Sheik Mohamed Aba Abdirahman, the group's self-proclaimed leader of Mogadishu, said the African Union attack had failed and that AU forces fell into an al-Shabab trap by spreading their troops too thin around the city.
The AU force commander, Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, said earlier Monday that a "small number" of al-Shabab militants remain a threat in northern Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab "will be judged harshly for the lives they take and the atrocities they commit. We need the support of all peace-loving Somalis to help us restore peace and stability to the city," Mugisha said.
Ali Haji, a Mogadishu resident, said he saw Somali soldiers stationed near the fighting. He said residents were fleeing.
Thousands of Somalis on Sunday poured into the city's sports stadium to protest last Tuesday's vicious truck bombing by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab. The Somali president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, spoke at the rally, calling al-Shabab "religious thugs."
"We have to retaliate against them for burning our people to death. Somalis fought colonialists before and al-Shabab is a new colonialist," the president said to loud applause.
Under tight security, the protesters waved Somalia's blue flag as the national anthem pulsated through the stadium. Al-Shabab, mimicking the Taliban regime of Afghanistan in the 1990s, has forbidden music in areas under its control.
"They are not Muslims. They are misinterpreting the religion and have made our blood their business!" said Zaynab Ali, a protester. "They don't even spare students. We need no more patience, but to kill and fight them. Down with al-Shabab!"
Last week's attack was not the first time the insurgents targeted students seeking an education that could better the country. In December 2009 a suicide bomber attacked a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu. The area struck by Tuesday's truck bomb was near several government ministries, including the Ministry of Education.
"They killed our students to prevent them from being educated and serving their country," said Mohamed Ahmed Nor, Mogadishu's mayor. "We are not deterred by their terror acts, and our young men will continue to learn and still go abroad to learn."
The attacks and battles with al-Shabab come as the Horn of Africa nation continues to suffer through its worst drought in 60 years. Tens of thousands of Somalis have already perished. The U.N. says more than 750,000 are at risk of starvation in the next several months.