Mogadishu: Islamist insurgents and government forces battled for a second day in the Somali capital after medical officials on Thursday said 23 people had already been killed.
Insurgents attacking from the north on Wednesday reached within a mile (2 kilometres) of the presidential place in the heart of the city before being beaten back with the help of African Union peacekeepers in tanks, residents said.
The exchange of gunfire and mortars made it impossible to get an accurate death toll for Thursday`s fighting because ambulances could not get to the wounded and dying.
Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu`s ambulance service, said he saw 20 bodies lying in the streets on Wednesday before the clashes prevented him from going out any more. Sixty-five people were wounded, mostly civilians, he said.
Three of the wounded died overnight, said Abdi Mahad, a doctor at Medina Hospital.
"A mortar shell has just fallen into the house next to me. We can hear neighbours crying and can see smoke over their building, but I do not know if there is a casualty," Sahra Haji Abdulle said by phone from her home in northern Mogadishu. "We could hardly sleep last night. The sky was lit up by shelling all night. We have nowhere to escape."
African Union peacekeepers used tanks to help government forces when the insurgents got within a mile of the presidential palace, said resident Omar Salad. Other residents confirmed his account.
The insurgents, the government and the peacekeepers have all been criticised by human rights groups for indiscriminately firing into and shelling residential neighbourhoods.
More than half of those living in Somalia`s seaside capital have fled. Those remaining are mostly too poor to move or fear being attacked as they leave. Compounding their dilemma, an Islamist group issued a series of demands at the beginning of the year that caused the UN`s World Food Program to pull out of much of southern Somalia. Soon families fleeing into the countryside may find nothing to eat.
Neither the Islamists nor the UN-backed government can take and hold enough ground for a decisive victory.
The government is supported by around 5,300 African Union peacekeepers, whose tanks and armoured vehicles help them to outgun the insurgents. The insurgents favour mobile hit-and-run attacks, using snipers and mortar fire to make it hard for the government`s poorly trained and irregularly paid soldiers to hold their position.
The government hopes to break the stalemate with an upcoming offensive, but its launch has been delayed by problems that include inadequate equipment and training. There has been a surge in fighting since the beginning of the year, when the offensive was first being publicly discussed.
Even if the government push succeeds, few Somalis trust an administration that has failed to deliver even a semblance of services or security more than a year after it took power.
The arid Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government since the overthrow of a socialist dictator in 1991. Its civil war, which began into clan warfare, has morphed in recent years into a fight between an administration favoured by the international community and an Islamist insurgency backed by hundreds of newly-arrived foreign fighters.