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Somalia Peacekeepers Accused of Firing Into Civilian Areas

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At least 24 people were killed and as many as 60 wounded in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, during what witnesses say was one of the worst fighting in recent months. African Union peacekeepers are being increasingly blamed for causing deaths and injuries among civilians.

Even the most battle-hardened residents describe the early morning fighting between African Union peacekeepers and al-Shabab militants as one of the most frightening battles they have ever seen.

One eyewitness, Mohamed Ali, tells VOA he was about to open his shop inside the city's sprawling Bakara open-air market, when artillery shells began raining down all around him.

Ali says storekeepers and shoppers began running in panic when the shelling began. He says some people were killed and others were wounded while trying to take cover.

The latest clash began as the president of Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government, Sharif Sheik Ahmed, was preparing to fly to Uganda to attend an African Union summit on refugees and internally displaced people. Local journalists say al-Shabab militants lobbed mortars at the airport, prompting peacekeepers of the African Union mission in Somalia known as AMISOM, to fire back.

Medical workers report most of the dead and wounded were inside Bakara market. They say two other areas in the capital controlled by al-Shabab were also shelled.

According to Somali journalists and residents, AMISOM troops frequently target Bakara market and other al-Shabab strongholds in the capital. Militants have long used these densely-populated areas to launch mortar attacks against AMISOM positions, which include the airport, seaport, and the presidential palace.

Bakara storekeeper Ali says peacekeepers often respond with indiscriminate fire, causing many civilian casualties.

He says Islamist insurgents cause problems by attacking the peacekeepers, but AMISOM's harsh response is doing far more harm than good. Ali warns AMISOM the people may no longer tolerate its presence in Somalia if it continues shelling residential areas.

AMISOM has repeatedly denied such accusations. In an interview with VOA Somali Service, a spokesman for the peacekeepers suggested that al-Shabab had staged the deadly shelling in Bakara market to fan anti-AMISOM sentiments.

Since the first 1,500 peacekeepers from Uganda arrived in Mogadishu more than two years ago, AMISOM troops have been relentlessly attacked by Islamist insurgents seeking to overthrow the Somali government. In February, 11 peacekeepers from Burundi were killed by a suicide car bomber. Another 17 peacekeepers, including the Burundian deputy force commander, were killed last month in twin suicide car bombings at the AMISOM base.

Both attacks have been claimed by al-Shabab, a group the United States and other Western countries believe is al-Qaida's proxy in the Horn of Africa.

AMISOM now has 5,000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, but the mission is still short of the mandated troop strength of 8,000.