MOGADISHU, Somalia – Scores of residents fled from their homes Thursday during a second day of fighting between Islamic insurgents and Somali and Ethiopian troops in which four people were killed and six wounded.
Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said the Somali government had gathered intelligence that indicated a top leader of the ousted Islamic courts, Aden Hashi Ayro, had been directing the insurgency in Mogadishu and was recently named the head of the Al Qaeda cell in Somalia.
"Our intelligence service (found that) the remnants of so-called Islamic courts named Aden Hashi Ayro as new chairman of the Al Qaeda cell in Somalia," Jelle told The Associated Press. He said the government had reports that Ayro was in Mogadishu.
Counterterrorism experts believe Ayro, who is in his mid-30s, received al-Qaida training in Afghanistan. U.N. officials have linked him to the killings of 16 people, including BBC journalist Kate Peyton. Counterterrorism officials also believe he was involved in a plot — never carried out — to bring down an Ethiopian airliner.
Residents boarded minivans or taxis, with the poorer ones carrying their belongings on their heads and in plastic bags. They were moving to safer parts of the city or leaving Mogadishu altogether.
One mother of seven children said she was forced to leave behind her husband and two children because they were too weak to travel. Hadija Mad Osman said her husband was injured by shrapnel when a mortar exploded near them, and the children had diarrhea.
"I have left my husband and two of my children lying in a makeshift house near the football stadium," Osman said. "I do not know where I am going."
Insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine-guns and government troops responded with artillery and machine-gun fire in the early morning battles Thursday in northern and southern parts of Mogadishu, witnesses said.
Witnesses counted four bodies in different parts of the city and Dr. Ali Bile of Keysaney Hospital said the hospital had received six wounded.
Hundreds of government troops were deployed to reinforce troops who fought insurgents Wednesday, said Fathi Mohamed Aden, a clan elder who saw the fighting in his northern Mogadishu neighborhood.
Both sides then engaged in a fierce gunbattle, he said.
In a southern Mogadishu neighborhood, gunmen attacked government and Ethiopian troops based at the former defense ministry building, said Jamila Isaq Roble, a mother of six.
The fighting follows Wednesday's battles during which insurgents dragged the corpses of six soldiers — four Somalis and two of their Ethiopian allies — through the streets of Mogadishu and set them on fire, drawing crowds who threw rocks and kicked the smoldering remains.
"The fighting has meant the end of my life and happiness. I lost two sons in 1993 when the U.S. troops fought battles with Somali militia and now I have lost the last one," said 37-year old Shamsa Abdikadir Wehliye, whose son was killed in Wednesday's fighting.
She spoke at Medina Hospital as she tended to her 50-year old husband, who was injured by shrapnel from the previous day's fighting.
Wednesday marked some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu since a radical militia known as the Council of Islamic Courts was driven from the capital in December after six months in power. But the group has promised to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and mortar attacks pound the capital nearly every day.
The leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, told the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Somali service that the insurgents and residents of Mogadishu are justified in fighting the Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies, but denied he was involved.
Speaking late Wednesday, Aweys said he and other Islamic leaders were safe and living in Somalia, though he declined to disclose his location. He said he considers African Union peacekeepers already in the country to be enemies.
"We were invaded and no one respected us while we were in power and were ready to negotiate. Even the United Nations, which we expected was an impartial organization, helped the invasion against us. So we see the African troops as an enemy and not a friend," Aweys said, speaking on a satellite phone.
Interior Minister Mohamed Mohamud Guled said that the government is determined to restore law and order in Mogadishu within a week despite any resistance it meets.
"The government will defeat the elements, who are the enemy of peace for Somalis and we will conclude that mission within a week," Guled told The Associated Press.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation, said Wednesday's offensive was focused on parts of the capital controlled by the Habr Gedir clan, which was a major supporter of the more radical elements of the Islamic courts and remains opposed to the government.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. The current administration has failed to assert control throughout the country, and the African Union has deployed a small peacekeeping force to defend it.
But daily violence has continued in the capital, with civilians caught in the crossfire bearing the brunt of the violence.