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Mogadishu Market Closes During Government Crackdown on Insurgents

In Somalia, all businesses in Mogadishu's main Bakara market have shut down, while heavily armed Somali and Ethiopian troops say they are searching for insurgents and weapons in the area. Tensions have escalated sharply in the capital since Sunday, when a grenade attack on interim-government soldiers in the market prompted the soldiers to open fire on civilians. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

A respected Somali clan elder, Ali Sultan Ahmed, tells VOA that Bakara's normally bustling streets and allys are empty, as fearful business owners in Somalia's largest open-air market kept their shops closed.

The elder says he fears the on-going government security crackdown in Bakara may keep some businesses closed indefinitely. Ahmed says thousands of people, who conduct business in the market every day, have run away and some shopkeepers have even left with their property.

The government says it believes Bakara market is a haven for radical Islamists, who have stepped up guerilla attacks against government officials and Somali and Ethiopian troops in recent weeks. Several days ago, government troops began a security crackdown in Bakara to root out the insurgents and confiscate illegal weapons.

Since then, government officials have been besieged with complaints from business owners that weapons needed to protect their businesses have been taken away and they have not been able to stop looters, including many soldiers, from stealing their property.

Insurgents heightened fear and tensions by targeting government troops in Bakara for three straight days.

Witnesses say at least five people were killed and dozens of other people wounded on Sunday, when nervous Somali soldiers opened fire into a crowd of people after hand grenades were thrown in their direction.

Government officials have not commented on Sunday's incident. But Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Dheere says the security operation will not stop until the capital is safe and free from violence.

Somalia's Ethiopian-backed interim government has been struggling to assert control in Mogadishu since taking power in January from a radical Islamist movement.

Western donor countries have urged government leaders to hold a broad-based national reconciliation conference to end the country's 16-year civil war. The government says security operations are being carried out to create a safe environment for the talks, which have been delayed three times since April and are now scheduled to begin on July 15.

But Somalis say clan divisions, which have been the root cause of much of the country's violence, have become sharper than ever under the interim government.