MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali Islamist rebels pushed towards the presidential palace late Tuesday but were repelled by heavy shelling by government troops, an army officer said Wednesday.
More than 80 people have been killed in the latest escalation of violence in the capital Mogadishu, which began on Monday when the al Shabaab group vowed to intensify its holy war against the fragile government.
The al Qaeda-linked militants said they were behind a shooting rampage in a hotel Tuesday that killed at least 33 people including members of parliament.
A military officer said the insurgents attacked government troops based near Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, in large numbers but were outgunned by the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping force.
“They came close tonight but behind us are AMISOM tanks and at last we drove them away,” army officer Issa Ali, who had been fighting in the frontline overnight, told Reuters.
Residents said bursts of automatic gunfire and the thuds of mortars could be heard throughout Wednesday.
An ambulance service worker said that at least 83 people had been killed in clashes in the last three days.
Tuesday night’s fighting was centred on the government-controlled neighbourhoods of Hodan and Wardhiglry. Al Shabaab and a second militant group, Hizbul Islam, control much of the capital, hemming President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s beleaguered government into just a few blocks.
The AU’s peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi concentrate their efforts on shielding the president and guarding the port and airport.
“Al Shabaab will never overrun the government as long as we (AMISOM) are here,” AMISOM spokesman Barigye Ba-Hoku told Reuters.
He said the hotel shooting was a hit on a soft target and illustrated mounting frustration and desperation within al Shabaab’s ranks. Some residents feared the hour-long killing spree was a prelude to a sustained bout of fighting.
Analysts say the presence of foreign troops in Somalia allows militants to pose as nationalist champions with a mandate for the kind of devastating attacks Mogadishu witnessed on Tuesday. Some argue the outside world should disengage militarily and lament the decision by AU members to deploy an additional 4,000 troops to the anarchic nation.
But supporters of the AMISOM force say al Shabaab will not simply evaporate if foreign troops exit.
The insurgents control large areas of central and south Somalia, and have attracted a large number of foreign fighters to their cause.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Guled; writing by Richard Lough; editing by Alison Williams