MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somalia's president said Friday that government forces are gaining ground after a week of fighting against al-Qaida-linked militants who had for years confined his administration to a few blocks of the capital.
Speaking to journalists in the capital, President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said the offensive will continue until Islamists' lock on large swaths of the country's south and central regions is broken.
"The fighting is going on and our troops are winning, our operation will continue until we secure the country," he said. "The situation is now different from the previous one, this offensive is well-planned."
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the fighting that broke out last weekend after AU troops propping up Ahmed's fragile government discovered a trench used by al-Shabab — Somalia's most dangerous militant group — to move supplies and fighters.
Somalia's government controls only a small slice of its seaside capital, Mogadishu. It has been promising a full-scale war against militants for years, but coordination among its poorly trained, seldom-paid government forces has delayed that push.
Government forces backed by the firepower of African Union peacekeepers clashed with militants in Mogadishu on Friday, though fighting decreased in intensity, said AU peacekeeping spokesman Maj. Barigye Bahoku.
Despite the stiff resistance, though, soldiers with the government-backed offensive captured the building of the former Somali defense ministry, which had been serving as the militants' base.
Islamists denied the government's claim of territorial gains.
"We have foiled the so-called offensive declared by the Christians," said Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, an al-Shabab spokesman, referring to non-Muslim AU peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi.
Pro-government militiamen also attacked Islamist positions from two fronts in a Kenyan border town, but militants held off the attackers.
Terrified residents of Belet Hawo said they cowered inside their homes as the two sides pounded each other's position with artillery fire and mortars torched houses.
"The fighting was going since this morning, mortars were hitting the town," said Mohamed Sheik, a resident of Belet Hawo, by phone. "We don't have any way to escape from this terrible fighting because combatants are on all streets."
The fighting has spread across the border to Kenya, where stray bullets killed a woman and wounded 10 others, said Titus Mungou, a spokesman for the Kenya Red Cross.
He said bullets have hit buildings in the border town of Mandera, including Red Cross offices. A police source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said government offices were also hit by stray bullets.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government and then turned on each other.
Associated Press writer Tom Odula contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.