By Abdi Sheikh and Aweys Yusuf
MOGADISHU, Nov 2 Battles in the Somali capital killed at least seven people on Friday and stoked a humanitarian crisis after nearly 90,000 people fled fighting earlier this week.
Ethiopian forces supporting Somalia's interim government are trying to crush Islamist-led rebels in Mogadishu. Clashes resumed before dawn and, although they later subsided, intermittent blasts of gunfire could be heard across the city.
Residents said at least three civilians, three Ethiopian soldiers and one rebel fighter were killed. Police could not confirm any deaths but said there had been Ethiopian casualties.
Three days of fighting that began last weekend displaced 88,000 residents, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said. Hundreds of thousands fled violence earlier this year.
Residents say several dozen people have died in this week's fighting and many have been forced into hiding.
The battles have cut the ability of aid workers to respond effectively to what charities call an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa nation.
Inhabitants have been streaming out of the city all week on foot or carried by carts, donkeys and motor vehicles.
According to the refugee agency, 47,000 have settled along a road west of Mogadishu and are living in makeshift shelters.
"They are now crammed into huts and things that have sprung up all along the road. They lack food, sanitation and water -- all the basic necessities of life," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.
PIRACY COMPOUNDS PROBLEM
Sixty-year-old Fatuma Abdi fled her home months ago with six grandchildren and their widowed mother. They live in a settlement 25 km (16 miles) south of the capital and survive on donations from families in the neighbourhood.
"I have just been told that my sister and her family have been killed by a mortar blast last night," she said, breaking down in tears, her hand covering her mouth.
Somalia's U.N.-backed government is struggling to impose its authority on the country, and its forces in Mogadishu and their Ethiopian allies face daily attacks from the insurgents.
With the international agenda dominated by other hotspots including Sudan's Darfur, humanitarian workers say the Somali crisis is not getting the attention it deserves.
When allied Ethiopian and Somali government troops launched two offensives against Islamist hideouts in Mogadishu earlier this year, hundreds of civilians died and 400,000 fled, according to U.N. and aid group figures. Most have not returned.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said it was in negotiations with the government to begin food distribution in Mogadishu, which remains suspended after its top official in the capital was detained without charge for nearly a week.
"We need escorts to bring food into Somalia," WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume told reporters in Geneva.
The only way to reach the displaced people in eastern Somalia was by boat, she said, although piracy was a major problem. It was impossible to take food there by land from Kenya because of a lack of secure roads.
"We are counting a lot on the French and other foreign powers to come and help secure transport," Berthiaume said. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva)