MOGADISHU, Somalia – A missile hit a hospital ward packed with civilians wounded in fighting between Islamic insurgents and Ethiopian troops allied to the Somali government, but it was not immediately clear if it caused additional casualties, an official said.
The ward already was housing 20-30 wounded adults, said Wilhelm Huber, regional director for the SOS Children's Villages. The children had been evacuated earlier, he said.
Five missiles had actually hit the grounds in the lunchtime attack, but only one struck a ward, Huber said. People were wounded, but he did not have details because of the chaotic situation and because there already were wounded in the ward at the time.
"What is happening now cannot go on," Huber told The Associated Press.
He said he did not believe the hospital had been deliberately targeted, but that it clearly came from government forces because of the flight path of the missiles.
"People are desperate," Huber said. "This is a tragic situation."
At least 13 shells have hit the grounds of the hospital and children's orphanage in the last six days, including the latest attack, he said.
Earlier in the day, civilians were caught in the crossfire as the Somali government's Ethiopian backers used tanks and heavy artillery to pound insurgent strongholds, witnesses said.
Ethiopian military officials met with elders of Mogadishu's dominant clan to try to broker a peace, said Abdullahi Sheik Hassan, a spokesman with Mogadishu's powerful Hawiye clan. Hundreds have been killed in eight straight days of fighting.
Analysts said U.S. and Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia has destroyed a fragile stability in this battle-scarred nation, as more than a week of unrelenting violence trapped desperate civilians in their homes with gunfire and artillery shells raining down outside.
The leaders of an Islamic movement that was driven from power in December by the government and its Ethiopian backers are still active, and popular support for the group is unlikely to melt away, according to a report by the British-based think tank Chatham House.
The Council of Islamic Courts ruled much of southern Somalia for six relatively peaceful months in 2006 before being ousted by Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies, along with U.S. special forces. Radicals in the council rejected a secular government and have been accused of having ties to al-Qaida.
"Whatever the short term future holds, the complex social forces behind the rise of the Islamic Courts will not go away," said Cedric Barnes and Huran Hassan of Chatham House.
Hundreds have been killed in eight straight days of fighting despite U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging both sides to end the violence and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the needy.
Late Tuesday, an extremist group claimed responsibility for car bomb attacks earlier in the day against Ethiopian troops and a hotel housing lawmakers loyal to Somalia's interim government. Known as the Young Mujahedeen Movement, the group is part of the Shabab, whose leader Aden Hashi Ayro was recently chosen to head Somalia's al-Qaida cell and was one of the people targeted by a U.S. airstrike in Somalia in January.
The U.N. says more than 340,000 of Mogadishu's 2 million residents have fled since February, sending streams of people into squalid camps with little to eat, no shelter and disease spreading. The war-ravaged country is suffering its worst humanitarian crisis in its recent history, according to the U.N.
Human rights groups say more than 350 people have been killed in the last eight days, the majority civilians. The last bid to wipe out the insurgency in March left more than a 1,000 dead, said local rights groups and traditional elders.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Tuesday he believed the exodus and the death toll had been exaggerated.
"I have been stuck inside for the last three days and have no food left," mother of nine, Hawa Mualim told AP by telephone, saying there was fighting outside her house in northern Mogadishu and she was too scared to venture outside.
Western and U.N. diplomats fear Somalia's government is holding up vital aid supplies to people fleeing the fighting. The government has been demanding to inspect all food and medical shipments, holding up potentially lifesaving aid, European and American officials said in letters obtained Tuesday by the AP.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said representatives of his office and other U.N. agencies met in the southern town of Baidoa on Monday with a newly established Inter-Ministerial Committee set up by the transitional government to discuss the lack of humanitarian access and the lack of cooperation from the government.
At the meeting, Holmes said, "they have assured us of full support for humanitarian access and humanitarian workers," including to all airstrips, which he welcomed but cautiously.
"The reassurances we received yesterday were good as far as they go, but they have to be translated into action," he said.
Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy. The current administration was formed in 2004 but has struggled to extend its control over the country.