Hundreds of Residents Flee Somali Capital

Hundreds of Somalis packed mattresses and food into minivans and trucks Friday to flee the capital, a day after it suffered some of the fiercest battles in 14 years.

Although Friday was relatively calm, more fighting was expected. Islamic militia fighters and their secular rivals maneuvered heavily armed trucks around city streets and reinforced their positions.

Doctors reached by telephone in the city's hospitals and clinics increased the death toll from Thursday's fighting to 60, with more than 150 people wounded across Mogadishu, said Dr. Abdi Ibrahim Jiya of the Somali Doctors Association.

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Somali Red Crescent Society called for the warring parties to show restraint and safeguard the lives and dignity of the wounded, prisoners and civilians.

The two organizations said there have been more than 300 deaths in Mogadishu since fighting first erupted Feb. 18, and 1,500 wounded have been treated in hospitals.

Thousands of civilians have fled their homes on foot, some with children on their backs, trying to keep from being caught in the crossfire or struck by stray rockets, shells and bullets. Among those fleeing were residents who left their homes in northern Mogadishu to seek refuge in other parts of the city.

Overnight, the Islamic militia consolidated their gains from Thursday's fighting and built up defensive positions in anticipation of a counterattack by the secular alliance, an Associated Press reporter observed. Scattered gunfire mixed with the explosion of mortar rounds throughout the night, but Mogadishu was relatively quiet Friday morning.

Militiamen from the Islamic Courts Union, which wants Somalia under Islamic law, made a rare foray Thursday into southern and eastern parts of the capital and captured a strategic junction in the center of the city, known as K4. They also seized the historic Sahafi Hotel, which is owned by a member of the secular Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism.

The alliance charges that the self-appointed Islamic court leaders have links to Al Qaeda, while the Islamic militants accuse the alliance of working for the CIA.

U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to confirm or deny any association with the alliance.

The Islamic fundamentalists portray themselves as capable of bringing order to the country, which has been embroiled in clan fighting and without a real government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Clashes that killed more than 140 people in eight days earlier this month were confined to northern Mogadishu.

The two sides signed a cease-fire on May 14, but renewed fighting began in northern Mogadishu Wednesday and spread Thursday.

A U.N.-backed government based in the central city of Baidoa, 155 miles northwest of Mogadishu, has not been able to assert authority elsewhere in the country, in part because of infighting. The Islamic leaders reject the government because it is not based on Islam.