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Thousands Flee Mogadishu as Violence Intensifies

Residents are continuing to flee Somalia's war-torn capital Mogadishu, making the most of a lull in fighting following one of the most violent weekends in recent months. Aid workers and local journalists say as many as 100,000 residents have abandoned their homes as increased violence by all sides in the long-running conflict creates an unparalleled climate of fear. Sarah Simpson has more from VOA's East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Panic-stricken residents of war-battered Mogadishu are packing up what they can and leaving after a weekend of heavy fighting and growing insecurity.

The United Nations says as many as 88,000 residents have abandoned their homes in just three panic-filled days. Some of the few remaining aid workers and journalists in the city put the figure closer to 100,000.

The government of Somalia, with military support from Ethiopia, is battling an Islamic insurgency. Civilians are caught in the middle, according to local journalist Mohammed Ibrahim who ran from Mogadishu to the city's outskirts on Thursday morning.

"The people are fleeing from the city because they are frightened by the fighting between the insurgents and the government with the Ethiopian powers," he said.

The U.N. says over 100 people were admitted to hospitals for weapons related injuries in just two days. This is in addition to the more than 3,400 admitted to hospitals with war-related injuries since January.

Christian Balslev-Olesen, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, in an open letter released Thursday, said he was concerned by the indiscriminate use of force by all sides in the conflict. Reports of house-to-house searches and large-scale detentions have created a climate of fear, he says.

Journalist Mohammed Ibrahim says looting is a big problem. Like many residents in Mogadishu, he believes that Somalia Transitional Federal Government troops are actively participating in the looting.

"The TFG troops will loot you, will loot your house, will loot your business, will stop and take your mobile phone if you [have] got one, will scare you with their guns, and so on. So the people are afraid and fleeing from the city," he said.

Sheik Don, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, tells VOA from his base in Mogadishu that much of the city is deserted.

"The roads are very bad, and most of them are now closed and blocked by the government and Ethiopian forces, and most of the people fled and most of the city is a ghost town. People have evacuated it and it is very, very bad," he said.

In his open letter, the U.N.'s Balslev-Olesen said he was concerned for the safety and well-being of those who remain in Mogadishu. Many have no access to food since the closure of a main market at the weekend, and humanitarian food distributions have ground to a virtual standstill.

Ibrahim says many of those who have fled - he calls them internally displaced people, or IDPs - are living in makeshift shacks along the roads leading out of Mogadishu.

"You can see the IDPs are everywhere. They do not have water. They do not have any food. Most of them have got diarrhea and so on," he said.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since former dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, opening the door to years of chaos and violence. Of Somalia's population of 9 million, more than 1.5 million are currently in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, according to the U.N.