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Mortars Greet Somali President's Return to Capital

Heavy fighting in Somalia's capital between Islamist rebels and government forces has killed at least 13. The clashes come a day after Somalia's new president returned to the country from neighboring Djibouti.

The clashes began when Islamist fighters attacked a base in the south of Mogadishu housing government troops and African Union peacekeepers. The rebels also fired mortar shells at the presidential palace.

As is often the case, the city's civilians bore the brunt of the violence with dozens wounded in addition to the fatalities.

The fighting comes only a day after Somalia's new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, returned to Mogadishu from Djibouti where much of the government has been forced to base itself due to the rampant insecurity in the country. It was the heaviest fighting since President Sharif, a moderate Islamist and a former insurgent, was chosen as President at the end of January.

On Sunday, 11 African Union peacekeepers from Burundi were killed in an apparent suicide attack organized by the hard-line Islamist al-Shabab militia. The group, which like President Sharif was part of the Islamic Courts Union that briefly controlled Mogadishu in late 2006, has vowed to launch further attacks.

At a recent conference, Islamic leaders criticized attacks on AU peacekeepers and aid workers. But they also said the Ugandan and Burundian troops, who number about 3,400 should leave the country within four months

President Sharif, however, defended the AU troops.

At a news conference on his arrival on Monday he said the peacekeepers are in the country to protect the population not disturb it. He said it goes against the country's culture to kill guests or people offering assistance.

The selection of President Sharif - who won a vote by members of the country's parliament in exile in Djibouti, following a peace deal last year - has raised expectations about the prospects for increased stability in the country.

He has sought to attract a wide base of support, along regional and clan lines, with his cabinet appointments. And he has made overtures to the more radical elements who continue to resist his government. Many observers hope he will succeed, given his Islamist credentials and the diminished enthusiasm among the population for an armed insurgency now that occupying Ethiopian troops have left the country.

But as this week's attacks have shown, pacifying Mogadishu, let alone the rest of the country, much of which is under the control of al-Shabab, remains an immense challenge, and one that is likely to see many more battles.