Around 70 die in Somalia militia battles

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MOGADISHU, Mar 24 (Reuters) Heavy fighting between rival Somali militia linked to Islamic courts and a new ''anti-terror'' alliance has killed about 70 people in the capital Mogadishu this week, hospital sources and residents said today.

Hundreds of Somalis have fled the capital and businesses have closed during the latest flare-up between fighters loyal to the powerful courts and warlords linked to a recently-formed political group called the Mogadishu Anti-Terrorism Coalition.

In what Somalis say is the worst fighting in their lawless Horn of Africa country for years, 37 people also died in clashes between the two sides last month.

Warlords have dominated the nation of 10 million since the ousting of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

''Today we've lost five people shot dead,'' a militia leader on the Islamist side told Reuters by telephone as a volley of shots could be heard in the background.

''And on the other side, they've lost six who were burned in a technical,'' he added. Technicals -- battle wagons made from adapted pickup trucks -- are the favoured mobile weapon of Somali militias who mount machine guns on the back.

Some of those killed were civilians.

Reuters TV footage showed relatives crowding into a Mogadishu hospital, where victims lay with head and chest wounds. One unconscious baby had wounds to his head, arm and stomach. A fighter with a chest wound coughed weakly.

Technicals crammed with fighters and guns roamed the streets of Mogadishu and sand-dunes near the sea, as heavy gunfire rattled out.

''It's the Mogadishu anti-terrorism coalition causing this war,'' the Islamic militia leader said.

''This group said they were fighting against terrorists but it is innocent people who are perishing here. We will continue fighting until we save ourselves.'' Members of the anti-terror group could not be contacted.

Local Islamists say the group was set up at the start of the year with the support and funding of the United States, which fears Somalia could be a safe haven for Muslim extremists.

In the 14th attempt to restore normal government to Somalia, an interim administration set up in Kenya returned last year but has been unable to impose authority. It remains based in Jowhar, outside the capital, because of security fears.

Renewed hope for peace came as the new Somali parliament held its first session on home soil last month, but the fighting in Mogadishu has underlined how tough it will be to end violence in a nation where warlords have ruled for 15 years.

REUTERS PDS PM1649

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