Residents flee Mogadishu as govt battles rebels

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MOGADISHU, Nov 12 (Reuters) Residents fled the Somali capital Mogadishu today, adding to a growing humanitarian crisis as government forces backed by Ethiopian tanks stepped up efforts to crush Islamist-led insurgents.

At least 70 people have been killed in more than a week of fighting that has driven tens of thousands of Somalis from their homes, residents and aid workers say.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the capital so far this year to escape several earlier battles.

Hawa Amed, a 40-year-old mother of eight, said she had wanted to stay in her house deep in the sprawling Bakara Market, where allied Somali-Ethiopian troops have been hunting for the guerrillas and their hidden arms caches over the weekend.

''But after two policemen were killed outside ysterday, we had to run,'' she told Reuters as she left the city on foot, her youngest child strapped to her back. ''We are now heading to Madina District ... we don't know how we will survive.'' The latest fighting killed nine out of ten members of one family today. Only a nine-year-old girl survived when an artillery shell hit them as they tried to flee.

Returning from a visit to Mogadishu, European Commission officials said some 5,000 Somalis had been treated for war-related injuries in hospitals there since the start of the year, and that about a third of those were women and children.

DELEGATE SOBS Describing to journalists a meeting with a seven-year-old boy who saw four of his friends torn apart by a landmine blast as they played outside, one delegate broke down in tears.

Government security forces and Ethiopian soldiers are hunting for rebel weapons in and around Bakara Market, and today the city's mayor, Mohamed Dheere, called on traders to return there and reopen their shops so they could be searched.

''We believe that a lot of wounded insurgents are hiding in Bakara and the surrounding areas,'' said one senior security officer who asked not to be named.

Ethiopian and Somali government troops have been battling insurgents in the Horn of Africa nation since Addis Ababa helped the interim administration rout a group of hardline Islamists from Mogadishu in January following a two-week war.

About 1,600 Ugandan peacekeepers deployed in Mogadishu in March as the vanguard of a proposed 8,000-strong African Union force. No other nations have so far sent troops, although a similar number of Burundians are due to arrive this month.

Also today, Somalia's interim government ordered an independent local broadcaster, Shabelle Radio, off the air and briefly detained two of its senior staff.

Earlier this year, the authorities accused Shabelle and other Somali news organisations of supporting the rebels.

''This is an operation against the independent media,'' Shabelle's acting director Jafar Kukay told Reuters after being released from custody at a police base in Bakara.

Reuters PD DB1838

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