Thousands of Somalis fleeing fighting around the capital have massed in a northern town, trying to cross the Gulf of Aden and sneak into Yemen, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.
The exodus comes as the country's beleaguered president prepares for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton next week.
The UNHCR said nearly a quarter of a million Somalis had fled their homes since May 7, when newly unified Islamist insurgents launched a concerted attack on Mogadishu, the capital. The U.S. State Department says some of the insurgent leaders have links to Al Qaeda.
Up to 12,000 civilians have taken shelter in the northern town of Bossasso, the base where smugglers take them across the perilous waters of the Gulf to Yemen, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.
Thirty-thousand Somalis have already made the crossing this year but more than 300 people have died or gone missing in the process.
Redmond said aid agencies were fighting "a losing battle" trying to persuade Somalis not to go on the dangerous journey, where deaths from drownings, shootings, hunger or dehydration are common.
"These people are obviously reaching the end of their rope. They see no future in Somalia and many of them are so desperate that they're willing to risk their lives and the lives of their families to escape," he said.
Redmond's comments come a day after the Somali parliament held its first meeting since May in war-ravaged Mogadishu. Analysts said it showed that the U.N.-backed government was confident enough of holding key military positions in the city to focus on issues of government.
"For the past two months all the government's attention was focused on fighting," said Mohamud Nor Ahmed, a lecturer at Mogadishu University. "Last week the prime minister ... named a security minister, and now parliament has met, I can say they are refocusing on their internal affairs rather than the endless war."
Clinton and Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed meet next week in Nairobi, Kenya — a site chosen for security reasons. They are expected to discuss Somalia's rising piracy and possible links between Al Qaeda and Somali insurgents.
The current government holds only a few blocks of Mogadishu, with support from African Union peacekeepers and shipments of weapons from countries including the United States. But the government still controls the port, the airport and key government buildings, territory the Islamists have tried desperately to wrest away.
Fighting continued Monday south of the city, but Speaker Sheik Aden Mohamed Nor said Parliament would not tolerate insecurity as an excuse for absence. He sacked five out of the 550 legislators for absences without a reason and for criticizing the government.
Other absent lawmakers had valid reasons, he said, and parliament reached its two-thirds quorum.
The impoverished Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government since clan leaders overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991 then turned on each other. Since then, clan rivalry has been complicated by sectarian tensions, the emergence of strong criminal gangs and the involvement of other countries.