MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Fighting between Islamist rebels and government forces in Somalia killed at least three people on Thursday when the insurgents attacked a base on the outskirts of Mogadishu, witnesses said.
Residents said bodies lay on the main road after the battle near Afgoye, 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital. A Somali government spokesman denied anyone had been killed and said two soldiers were wounded.
Somalia’s U.N.-backed administration is facing a stubborn insurgency by Islamist rebels including foreign militants who Western security agencies say use the Horn of Africa nation as a safe haven to plot attacks in the region and beyond.
Residents say masked Islamist fighters including foreigners and their local allies moved into the Afgoye area in recent days, searching vehicles and whipping unveiled women. They also banned smoking and the chewing of the popular narcotic khat.
There were also tensions on Thursday in the strategic southern port of Kismayu, where a faction of the Hizbul Islam rebel group has been distributing leaflets calling on another rebel group, al Shabaab, to hand over control of the town.
Washington accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia. Kismayu residents said they feared fighting between Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab could break out at any point.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government controls only small parts of the central region and a few districts of the bullet-scarred capital.
On Thursday, Ahmed flew out of Mogadishu. Aides said he was planning to visit Gulf Arab states to seek support.
Ahmed has urged the rebels to observe a ceasefire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started last week. But an insurgent leader has rejected that and accused the president of planning to use any truce to re-arm his forces.
More than 18,000 Somalis have been killed since the start of 2007 and another 1.4 million driven from their homes.
That has triggered one of the world’s worst aid crises, with the number of people needing assistance leaping 17.5 percent in a year to 3.76 million, or half the population.