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96 Dead in Fight for Somalia's Capital, Victims Mostly Civilians

Businessmen, clan elders and moderate religious leaders shuttled between secular warlords and Islamic extremists in Somalia's capital on Wednesday, trying to broker a cease-fire as the death toll from four days of fighting reached 96.

The fighting has escalated steadily since Sunday, when the extremists, which have alleged ties to Al Qaeda, and the warlords, linked to the U.S., took up strategic positions in Mogadishu.

Most victims in the recent fighting have been civilians caught in the crossfire. Nearly 200 people have been wounded in the fighting, doctors have said.

Heavy weapons fire echoed through the city as the fighting spread to another Mogadishu neighborhood. The battle between the Islamic Court Union and the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism has centered on the northern neighborhood of Sii-Sii, with neither side gaining an advantage.

Abdulahi Shir'wa, a civil leader, said neutral groups were meeting with the leaders of the two militias on Wednesday to negotiate another cease-fire, but so far without success.

Abdinura Siad, an alliance militia commander, met with clan elders Monday afternoon.

"The alliance is not satisfied with the current mediating efforts, those who are mediating are biased," he said. "The Islamists should stop fighting, then we can stop. We are only defending ourselves."

For a second day, Islamic Court Union chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said he was ready to observe a cease-fire.

"From now on we are going to cease fire because this is good for everybody," he said.

But by nightfall, gunfire could still be heard in northern Mogadishu and mediators said they were still trying to broker an agreement.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi also called on all sides to stop fighting from his government's headquarters in Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu. Though his government has U.N. backing, it has so far failed to assert itself outside of Baidoa.

The U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, issued a statement Wednesday appealing for "leaders on both sides to step back from the brink."

"Whatever the allegiances, the intermittent conflict between heavily armed camps has resulted in indiscriminate loss of life and has created fear and chaos for those civilians trapped in the crossfire," he said.

Somalia has had no effective central government since 1991, when warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other — carving this nation of an estimated 8 million people into a patchwork of anarchic, clan-based fiefdoms.

Islamic fundamentalists have portrayed themselves as an alternative capable of bringing order and peace, but they have not hesitated to use force and have allegedly linked up with Al Qaeda terrorists.

Rumors abound that the United States is backing the alliance. Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed told The Associated Press in an interview last week that he believes the American government is supporting the militia, which includes ministers in an interim Cabinet, as a way of fighting several top Al Qaeda operatives that are being protected by radical clerics. The U.S. has said only that it had met with a wide variety of Somali leaders in an effort to fight international terrorists in the country.

Overnight, victims continued to pour into the capital's hospitals.

"Referring to the information I receive from the main hospitals in Mogadishu this morning, at least 90 people were killed and nearly 200 others wounded since the fighting flared up on Sunday," said Dr. Mohamed Hassan of Ayaan Hospital. Later reports indicated that another six people had died.

Noncombatants said they distrust both sides in the fighting.

"This is the third time they have fought in a civilian area since April this year," said Abdullahi Fiidow, a former military colonel.

Ahmed Moalin, a former school teacher whose house was destroyed by a mortar round, said both sides have been resupplying and fortifying their positions as the fighting has continued.

"The fighting has had a very negative impact on poor people like me. My six children and my wife have slept outdoors for a third night," he said.