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Fighting Eases in Somalia Capital

Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, is reportedly calm one day after African Union peacekeepers were seen fighting al-Shabab-led insurgents in the north of the city. The incident has raised questions about whether the peacekeepers exceeded their mandate, which limits them to defending themselves and key sites from insurgent attacks.

Sunday's fighting was reportedly precipitated by al-Shabab militants, who were spotted assembling one kilometer outside of Villa Somalia, the residence of the leader of Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government, Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

A Somali government official told local reporters that peacekeepers from the African Union mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, backed up government troops in defending the presidential palace.

But several people in Mogadishu interviewed by VOA say African Union peacekeepers in armored vehicles left their bases Sunday in the southern area of the capital and advanced into northern Mogadishu. There, they battled insurgents in what eyewitnesses describe as some of the worst street fighting in the capital in recent days.

The Somali reports contradict AMISOM's insistence it did not engage in any combat with insurgents. Under their mandate, the 4,300 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi have the right to use force to defend themselves and key sites, which include Villa Somalia, and the city's main seaport and airport in the southern part of Mogadishu.

Since arriving in Mogadishu more than two years ago in support of an unpopular, Ethiopian-backed transitional government, AMISOM has been careful to remain neutral in the insurgency, which has killed thousands of people and have left nearly 1.5 million homeless.

But the U.N.-sponsored peace process that brought Somalia's Islamist President Sharif to power in January intensified the insurgency, drawing hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia to back al-Shabab, a militant group with links to al-Qaida.

Somalia's neighbors and the West fear Somalia could become a regional haven for terrorists. On Friday, six Horn of Africa countries making up the Intergovernmental Authority on Development pleaded for urgent international help in Somalia and a review of the current AMISOM mandate, arguing that the conflict in Somalia had changed from a civil war to an invasion by religious extremists.

Al-Shabab's main spokesman, Ali Mohamed Rage, accused AMISOM troops of breaking their neutrality and becoming combatants in the conflict.

AMISOM's Ugandan spokesman in Mogadishu, Bariyge Ba-Hoku, did not say why the peacekeepers were deployed Sunday nearly eight kilometers north of Villa Somalia. But he says AMISOM has the right to be anywhere they are needed.

"We are not just peacekeepers at the seaport, airport, and Villa Somalia. We are supposed to be in the whole country. And so, anywhere where we think there is danger, anywhere we think we can assist, we will do that," Ba-Hoku said.

Mogadishu residents say AMISOM troops have returned to their bases, but not before forcing al-Shabab militants to abandon several neighborhoods they had captured in previous weeks of fighting.