Gunbattle rocks Mogadishu ahead of peace conference

By Mohamed Olad Hassan

MOGADISHU, Somalia – A 30-minute gunbattle rocked the capital in the hours before a long-awaited Somali peace conference was set to begin Thursday. At least two people were killed, officials said.

The battle between government soldiers and suspected insurgents broke out late Wednesday near Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market.

“It was the worst gunbattle I have ever heard. They used all sorts of weapons, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Mohamud Ibrahim, who watched the gunbattle from the rooftop of a hotel.

A government soldier and a civilian were killed, police said.

The national reconciliation conference, aimed at helping the country heal the wounds of 16 years of conflict, opened briefly Sunday but was postponed after eight mortar rounds landed near the venue. The meeting has been delayed several times due to violence in the capital and infighting.

Abdirahman Mohamud Shift, a spokesman for the conference, refused to comment on the new violence.

The conference is to serve as a forum for Somali elders to deal with clan grievances.

Over the weekend, Islamic militants threatened to disrupt the gathering, saying anyone who takes part “is sentenced to death.” The threat came from the Shabab, the militant wing of an Islamic group that ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year. The group was driven from its strongholds in December but has vowed to launch an Iraq-style insurgency until Somalia is ruled by an Islamic theocracy.

Mogadishu has seen little peace since government troops backed by Ethiopian forces drove Islamic hard-liners out of the city in December. Bombs, attacks on government installations, assassination attempts and gunbattles have become common, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

The government has said the Shabab’s threats would not disrupt the conference. Somali and Ethiopian troops patrolled the streets and dozens of checkpoints were set up along roads.