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Somali Capital Empties as Residents Flee Renewed Violence


Several neighborhoods in the Somali capital, Mogadishu are virtually deserted as residents flee to avoid fighting between Ethiopian troops and Islamist-led insurgents. From the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports Ethiopia has rejected charges its troops engaged in reprisal killings after rebels dragged the bodies of dead soldiers through Mogadishu's streets.

Reporters in the Somali capital say streets are empty in some of the most dangerous areas. The sprawling Bakara market in the southern part of the city was reported closed for a second day.

Tens of thousands of people fled during the past few days to avoid what one witness told VOA was some of the worst violence in Mogadishu in months.

It began Thursday, when Ethiopian soldiers launched house to house searches and shelled suspected insurgent hideouts in southern parts of the city.

Civilians complained that the Ethiopian troops had fired indiscriminately in reprisal attacks after insurgents dragged the mutilated bodies of dead soldiers through the streets of the capital.

The group Human Rights Watch accused both soldiers and insurgents of violating the laws of war during the exchange of hostilities.

But Bereket Simon, a senior adviser to Ethiopia's prime minister, vehemently denied there had been any revenge attacks or targeting of civilians.

"Our army is not trained in that fashion," said Bereket Simon. "It is an army who knows its mission and gives top priority to the safety of the civilian people. So that is not true."

The image of dead soldiers dragged through the streets of the capital is reminiscent of the 1993 incident in which Somali militiamen displayed the mutilated bodies of American servicemen killed when their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. The incident prompted the pullout of U.S. forces from Somalia.

Ethiopian spokesman Bereket soundly rejected any comparison between events of the past few days and the Black Hawk incident.

"This is an accident and it cannot have an impact on Ethiopian soldiers, I assure you," he said. "We have made some sacrifices, but that is not that serious in our opinion. We have improved the situation in Somalia. There is more or less stability in most parts of Mogadishu, and last time somehow this accident happened, and we are singling out the perpetrators and targeting them, so it cannot be contrasted with Black Hawk Down."

Military analysts say Ethiopia sent as many as 2,000 fresh troops to Somalia in the past week, to bolster a force estimated to be in excess of 50,000. Ethiopia dispatched troops to Somalia almost a year ago to aid an interim government overwhelmed by Islamist insurgents.

Ethiopian leaders have said they would withdraw from Somalia in favor of a robust international peacekeeping force capable of restoring order in a country that has suffered more than a decade and a half of political turmoil. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says sending peacekeepers to Somalia under current conditions is 'not a realistic or viable option'.

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