Four days of fierce fighting between Somali forces and Islamic insurgents has killed 381 people in Mogadishu, a local human rights organization said Monday, as the government warned residents to abandon their homes ahead of a new military offensive.
During a lull in the violence, civilians were told to leave insurgent-held areas in Mogadishu as Somalia's transitional government said it planned new attacks with Ethiopian troops, tanks and helicopters to crush insurgents, backed by the remnants of an Islamic group driven from power in December.
On foot, using donkey carts, cars and trucks they poured out of the ruined coastal city, joining the exodus of 47,000 people — mainly women and children — who have sought safety in the last 10 days, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency. Since February almost 100,000 people have fled the growing violence.
Even by Somalia's bloody standards, the last four days of violence has been intense.
Rotting corpses still littered dusty alleyways and back streets in the south of the capital where much of the fighting took place.
"For the last four days we have registered 381 deaths and 565 people wounded," said Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairman of Elman Human Rights Organization. He said nearly all were civilians.
Monday's lull appears to follow a truce between Ethiopian forces and insurgents, brokered by Mogadishu's dominant clan. But it is unlikely to last.
"It is null and void," Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said as Ethiopian troops were seen reinforcing close to insurgent strongholds in the south of the city.
Jelle dismissed reports that Ethiopian reinforcements were pouring into the city of 2 million. Around 4,000 Ethiopian troops are in Mogadishu, said Western diplomats who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because it related to security matters.
"We call on the civilians living in terrorist-held areas in Mogadishu to abandon their houses because it is possible that government troops may target these areas any time," Jelle said. "We have to clean Al Qaeda elements from Mogadishu."
Gen. Abdullahi Ali Omar, the commander of Somalia's army, narrowly escaped a roadside bombing as he drove in a government convoy from his hotel Monday morning. One soldier was injured, said Somali presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamoud Hussein. "An al-Qaida cell was behind the explosion. They want to kill key government officials. They want to do here what they are doing in Iraq."
The insurgents are linked to the Council of Islamic Courts, which was driven from power in December by Somali and Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by U.S. special forces. The U.S. has accused the courts of having ties to Al Qaeda.
The Islamic courts stockpiled thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition during the six months they controlled Mogadishu. The insurgency will likely last until that stockpile is depleted, or key leaders are killed.
The militants have long rejected any secular government and have sworn to fight until Somalia becomes an Islamic emirate.
Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. In Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit sent urgent letters Sunday to the United Nations, Arab League and the African Union urging a speedy intervention to end the fighting in Somalia.
Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned each other.