MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The worst fighting in Mogadishu for more than 15 years killed at least 1,086 people and led half the city’s population to flee in terror, according to a Somali committee set up to assess the damage.
The clashes pitting Ethiopian and Somali forces against clan militia and insurgents wounded more than 4,300, said the committee’s report obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.
The March 29-April 1 battles prompted 1.4 million to flee their homes in the Somali capital, home to 2.4 million people.
An earlier report by a local human rights group put the death toll at 381 civilians in what aid workers have called the worst fighting in Mogadishu for more than 15 years.
It was sparked when Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies began a disarmament drive that escalated into an offensive to flush out insurgents before a national reconciliation conference scheduled to take place on April 16.
Colonel Hussein Siayaad, a member of the committee grouping security officials and civil society activists, said 88 bodies were recovered from one square kilometre (0.4 sq miles) of land, only a fraction of the battlefield.
“This is a rough estimate and the number is going to be much higher because we have not ventured out of the main roads,” Siayaad told Reuters. “The dead bodies are still there and it will take weeks to collect all of them.”
Residents say the insurgents include Islamist fighters and militia from the dominant Hawiye clan who oppose the presence of what they say are Ethiopian invaders and reject a government they regard as dominated by President Abdullahi Yusuf’s Darod clan.
Fighting subsided after a truce was negotiated between Hawiye elders and the Somali-Ethiopian troops. Officials said more talks were planned to discuss extending the ceasefire.
A Reuters reporter driving through Mogadishu’s rubble-strewn streets said Hawiye and Islamist fighters had dug deep trenches along/across major highways.
Witnesses in the government stronghold of Baidoa say Ethiopian reinforcements have landed in the south central town.
Residents continue to flee Mogadishu where food and fuel prices have soared. One kilo of sugar now costs 16,000 shillings, almost three times the price before the recent flare-up, while the cost of gasoline has doubled.
Diplomats say the government’s only chance to gain the legitimacy it needs to lead the Horn of Africa country is through the national reconciliation conference. But many expect the meeting to be delayed.
Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, urged the Somali government on Saturday to open up the political process to all Somalis who eschew violence and extremism. Diplomats fear a prolonged crisis will jeopardise security across the region.
Frazer has accused Eritrea of trying to destabilise Somalia as a way of hurting arch foe and neighbour Ethiopia. Eritrea, which has held talks with a senior former Islamist who fled Somalia, denied the allegations in a statement on Tuesday.
Ethiopia said it was holding 41 people detained during fighting in Somalia after Human Rights Watch accused it, along with Kenya, the United States and the Somali government, of running a secret detention programme.
The group was flown to Ethiopia under a “common understanding” with the Somali authorities, according to an Ethiopian foreign ministry statement. None had been subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment.
Twenty-nine prisoners had been slated for release after questioning, it said. Five detainees — from Tanzania, Sudan, Denmark, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates — have already been freed.
Last week, U.S. officials said CIA and FBI agents had questioned suspected Islamist militants in Ethiopia in the hope of unearthing details about al Qaeda activities in east Africa.