Heavy fighting broke out in Somalia's capital on Friday with African Union peacekeepers encountering resistance as they pushed to Mogadishu's outskirts for the first time, the latest move in an offensive against Islamist insurgents.
Hundreds of residents fled a northern Mogadishu neighborhood after waking to the sound of mortars and gunfire. AU troops have largely pushed al-Shabab militants out of the city over the last year, but pockets of resistance remain.
Resident Abdirahman Ahmed said he was awakened by "noisy mortars" on Friday, said that al-Shabab fighters appeared to be moving back into the northern neighborhood of Heliwa.
"We want to flee now," he said, adding: "People are nervous."
Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the AU force that is known as AMISOM, said Friday was the first time that AU forces moved outside of Mogadishu.
"We are moving out of the city now so we can defend the city from outside now. Our troops have captured strategic bases from al-Shabab," Ankunda said.
The nearly 10,000-strong AU force was confined in previous years to small slices of Mogadishu, but the push to expand their zones of control over the last year have been largely successful. The AU force is working side by side with Somali troops, but most of the gains have been made by the better trained and equipped troops from Uganda and Burundi.
Al-Shabab is also being pressured by Kenyan military forces in Somalia's south and Ethiopian forces in the west.
East African nations want the U.N. Security Council to authorize an increase in the number of troops inside AMISOM to 17,000. Kenya has also asked the U.N. for its forces inside Somalia to be integrated into the AU.
Militants continue to carry out suicide and roadside bomb attacks in Mogadishu. At least six bombs were found or exploded in the capital since Wednesday, including a blast on Thursday that killed six people.
Meanwhile, the AU force commander, Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, said that around 3,000 Somali troops had not received their wages for the past four months. The AU is supposed to pay them with money donated by Italy, but Mugisha said the Italians had not yet sent the cash. The delay in payment had caused some soldiers to desert their posts, he said.
"It will have an impact on morale," he said.
Around 7,000 other Somali soldiers are paid by the U.S. through a separate program.
Somalia hasn't had a functioning government in more than 20 years. The current transitional government, whose mandate ends in August, is paralyzed by political infighting. The U.N. is pressing government leaders to resolve their differences and expand the areas in the country the government provides services to.
Somalia has also been dealing with a famine the last six months that is estimated to have killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Friday was the six-month mark since the U.N. declared famine in Somalia on July 20.
Associated Press reporter Katharine Houreld contributed to this report.