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Somali militia battle enters seventh day, 144 dead

Written by: Staff
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MOGADISHU, May 13 (Reuters) - Mortars, machine guns and rockets pounded Mogadishu today in a seventh day of fierce militia fighting that has killed at least 144 people so far and which spread quickly across the ravaged city.

As the street battles dragged on in rundown areas of the Somali capital, the interim government -- powerless to stop the shooting and unable to enter Mogadishu -- called for foreign intervention to end the worst fighting there in years.

At least 11 civilians were killed overnight and into Saturday as gunmen from a powerful alliance of warlords engaged in close-range firefights and artillery duels with militiamen backed by the city's influential Islamic courts.

Fighting had originally been limited to the northern shantytown of SiiSii, but spread into the nearby areas of Yaqsid and Karan before erupting on Saturday in neighbourhoods across southern Mogadishu.

Analysts view the fighting in the failed Horn of Africa state as a proxy battle between al Qaeda and Washington, which is widely believed to be funding the warlords.

The warring parties were massing militiamen and another warlord, Mohamed Dheere and his militia arrived from his stronghold in Jowhar to join the battle.

''The coalition is planning to attack the Islamic court militia from other fronts,'' said Ali Nur, a militiaman allied to the warlords.

The warlords closed off the entries in and out Mogadishu, including a key road to southern Somalia to block the advance of a powerful Islamic militia heading to join its allies.

Warlord Colonel Abdi Hassan Awale said his fighters were checking all vehicles travelling in and out of the city for the presence of foreigners believed to be training and fighting alongside the Islamic militias.

''It was necessary to put pressure on these roads to catch the foreigners and the supporters trying to escape from the capital,'' Awale told Reuters.

As the battlezone widened, residents and aid workers said they feared more civilian casualties as munitions kept striking homes.

Most of the dead and many among the hundreds who were wounded were non-combatants. Residents continued to flee their homes, taking basic possessions with them.

CALL FOR FOREIGN HELP The interim government, now based in the southern city of Baidoa because it is unable to exert much control in the country of 10 million, appealed for humanitarian aid for the victims.

''We ... call upon and invite the international community to intervene and get involved in the crucial situation in Mogadishu by ... cooperating fully with the Somali transitional federal government to rescue the innocent suffering people,'' Information Minister Mohamed Abdi Hayir said in a statement.

Already, the perception of a foreign hand in Mogadishu -- namely the United States -- has stoked the fighting between the Islamic militias and the warlord coalition, which dubbed itself ''Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.'' Interim President Abdullahi Yusuf and Islamic leaders have accused Washington of financing the warlords.

The top U.S. diplomat in Africa yesterday said she did not know if the warlords had U.S. backing.

''But our policy is very clear. We will work with those elements that will help us to root out al Qaeda and to prevent Somalia becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and we are doing it in the interests of protecting America,'' Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer told Reuters.

Warlord Omar Finnish said Islamist militias were harbouring terrorists exploiting Somalia's vacuum of anarchy.

''We decided to remove these elements who are on the run. We did not form this alliance in order for Somalis to kill each other,'' Finnish, also the country's religious affairs minister, told Reuters by telephone.

The Islamic side has denied the presence of foreigners in its ranks, but diplomats say they are sympathetic to a handful of al Qaeda operatives hiding in Mogadishu.

The United States has long seen Somalia, without a central government since warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, as a likely hideout for terrorists.

REUTERS SY VC2114

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