MOGADISHU, Somalia - Masked gunmen dragged slain soldiers through the streets of Somalia's capital Wednesday, then set the bodies on fire as jeering crowds threw rocks and kicked the dead after a fierce battle in a neighborhood loyal to Islamic insurgents.
At least 16 people were reported killed and dozens were wounded in the hours-long firefight, which was some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu since a radical Muslim militia was driven from the city in December after six months in power.
An Associated Press photographer saw six corpses - all soldiers for the U.N.-backed interim government or their Ethiopian allies - burned and mutilated while masked men shouted "God is great!" Women in head scarves and flowing dresses pounded one charred body with rocks.
A similar scene in Mogadishu grabbed the world's attention in 1993 when militiamen shot down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter during an attempt to capture a warlord and dragged around dead American soldiers. The Clinton administration pulled out U.S. troops, and U.N. peacekeepers soon followed suit, leaving Somalia to years of anarchy.
One man, Abdinasir Hussein, said he dragged a soldier's corpse behind his motorbike.
He told AP he wanted to show that Somalis will defeat the "invaders," referring to the troops from neighboring Ethiopia that helped government forces defeat the Islamic militia. "I'm happy to drag an Ethiopian soldier on the Mogadishu streets," Hussein said. Ahmed Mohamed Botaan, a clan elder in the neighborhood where the battle erupted before dawn, said he counted 16 bodies, seven of which were government soldiers. Mogadishu's three hospitals reported at least seven dead and 36 wounded. The fighting began when Somali and Ethiopian soldiers entered the insurgent stronghold in southern Mogadishu seeking to consolidate the government's control. But hundreds of masked gunmen were waiting, and shooting raged for hours. An insurgent group known as the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations, which is linked to the ousted Council of Islamic Courts, claimed it was the target of the government offensive but said its fighters repulsed the attack. "They were unable to bear the pain of bullets coming from all four directions," the group said in a statement posted on the Islamic militia's Web site. A government official, who agreed to discuss the combat situation only if not quoted by name, said the offensive focused on parts of the city controlled by the Habr Gedir clan, which supported more radical elements of the Islamic militia and opposes the interim administration. The official said there would be more fighting. "The next week will be very hot in Mogadishu," the official said. President Abdullahi Yusuf's Darod clan and the Habr Gedir are traditional enemies. Habr Gedir elders accuse Yusuf of favoring his own clansmen and recruiting only Darod into the new Somali army, aggravating Somalia's complex mixture of clan, political and religious disputes. The United States has supported Yusuf's government and accuses the Islamic militia of having ties to al-Qaida terrorists. The U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who also represents American interests in Somalia, condemned Wednesday's bloodshed but said Washington believes things are better in Somalia. "On balance we do feel that the situation in Somalia is moving forward in a generally positive way," Ranneberger told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when clan-based warlords ousted a longtime dictator and then began fighting among themselves. Yusuf's administration was set up with U.N. help but it has failed to assert control across the country. The African Union has deployed a small peacekeeping force to defend the government, but daily violence grips Mogadishu and civilians caught in the middle are suffering the most. "The government should learn from today's defeat. Its soldiers were dragged through the streets," said Zainab Abdi, a mother of two children. She urged the government to reach out to the leaders of the Islamic militia, who are in hiding and promising to wage an Iraq-style insurgency. "Otherwise, civilians will keep dying," Abdi said. "Who will the government rule if their people are killed every day?" (AP) Mohamed Olad Hasan reported from Mogadishu and Elizabeth A. Kennedy from Nairobi, Kenya. AP writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu and Chris Tomlinson and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi contributed to this report. AP-CS-03-21-07 1520EDT
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