MOGADISHU, Somalia – An attack by Islamic insurgents on Somali troops near an African Union peacekeeping base in the capital killed a sleeping child and at least two other civilians, as regional leaders met to discuss ways of aiding the beleaguered government.
The 6-year-old child was among those killed when a mortar shell slammed into a home near the AU base, Mogadishu resident Farhiyo Sharif Awale said.
AU spokesman Lt. Cize Justice said none of his troops were hurt and the attack was aimed at government forces stationed near the AU base. Government spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment on casualties.
In recent weeks, Islamic insurgents have stepped up attacks aimed at toppling Somalia's Western-backed government, prompting tens of thousands of people to flee Mogadishu. At least 45,000 people have left since May 8, the U.N. reported Wednesday.
In the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, regional leaders suggested ways of aiding the weakened Somali government, which now only directly controls pockets of the capital.
AU commission chairman Jean Ping called on member nations to help Somalia blockade ports held by the insurgents -- where the fighters collect taxes and illegally import weapons -- and help control Somali airspace.
Ping also revisited a suggestion made earlier this year -- the idea of targeted sanctions against leaders deemed to be undermining Somalia's peace process.
Ping also repeated previous calls for the U.N. to send peacekeepers, an option that has met with a lukewarm response at best. U.N. envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah opened Wednesday's meeting by suggesting reinforcing the African Union mission and offering financial support to Somalia's authorities.
Residents near the border that Ethiopian shares with Somalia reported Tuesday at least 12 vehicles loaded with Ethiopian troops had taken up positions in a town lying on a strategic crossroad.
It was unclear whether they represented a vanguard for a larger group or were a continuation of a series of small border crossings reported since the Ethiopians pulled their troops out of Somalia in early 2009 as part of a peace deal.
The Ethiopians had originally entered Somalia at the invitation of the previous administration. They helped drive an Islamist regime from the capital of Mogadishu and much of the south, but the Islamists launched an Iraq-style insurgency, elements of which are still battling the present government.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre before turning on one another. A Western-backed transitional government was formed in 2004, but failed to assert control.
The U.S. worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Usama bin Laden has declared his support for the Islamists. The U.S. says the leading Somali Islamist faction -- al-Shabab -- is harboring Al Qaeda-linked terrorists accused of blowing up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
But Washington is hesitant to take a leading role in Somalia. A botched intervention in the early 1990s left 18 U.S. servicemen dead and the legacy of the "Black Hawk Down" battle still weighs heavily on both countries.
Somalia also has to grapple with an age-old clan structure that makes governing the country nearly impossible. There are dozens of clan factions in the capital, each making demands on the government and each a potential spoiler, capable of extreme violence if ignored.