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Insurgents In Mogadishu Attack African Union Peacekeepers

MOGADISHU (Reuters) -- Hard-line Islamist insurgents in Somalia's capital fired mortar bombs at the presidential palace and attacked African Union peacekeepers late on May 23, at the end of a second day of heavy fighting.

Government forces and rebels blasted shells at each other in the afternoon and fighters clashed in parts of Mogadishu. Two people were killed and 10 wounded near Bakara Market, an Al-Shabaab rebel stronghold. Fighting on May 22 killed at least 45.

A human rights group said many residents fled during a lull in the violence on May 23, joining 49,000 others who have fled the city during an upsurge of violence over the past two weeks.

Neighboring states and Western governments fear the Horn of Africa nation, mired in civil war for 18 years, could become a haven for militants linked to Al-Qaeda unless the new government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed can defeat them.

At night, heavy gunfire and explosions could still be heard.

"Opposition groups have attacked us with rocket-propelled grenades," a senior Burundian officer told Reuters. "They are still firing at us and we shall defend ourselves."

The African Union has some 4,300 peacekeepers from Burundi and Uganda in Mogadishu to help protect key sites. Their mandate limits the force to defending itself when attacked.

Islamist insurgents took up arms in 2007 to drive out Ethiopian troops propping up a Western-backed government which failed to wield control over much of Somalia.

Since the start of 2007, fighting has killed at least 17,700 civilians and driven more than 1 million from their homes. About 3 million Somalis survive on emergency food aid.

Eritrea Recalls AU Envoy

The Ethiopians withdrew at the start of 2009 and Ahmed was elected president in neighboring Djibouti in January. However, the insurgents have stepped up attacks on the new administration and AU peacekeepers over the past few weeks.

The hard-line Al-Shabaab, which Washington says has close ties to Al-Qaeda, and Islamist guerrilla group Hizbul Islam have been spearheading attacks on the capital and central Somalia.

Somalia's government has accused Eritrea of supporting Al-Shabaab fighters with planeloads of weapons including AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The African Union (AU) stepped up pressure on Eritrea on May 22 by calling for UN sanctions, a no fly-zone, and a sea blockade of Somalia to stem the flow of weapons.

"[The United Nations Security Council should] impose sanctions against all those foreign actors, both within and outside the region, especially Eritrea, providing support to the armed groups," the 53-member AU said in a statement.

Eritrea's president denies the allegation, saying U.S. agents are spreading lies to blacken his government's name.

Eritrean Information Minister Ahmed Ali Abdu told Reuters the Horn of Africa nation had recalled its ambassador to the African Union following the statement. He denied a media report saying the country had suspended its AU membership.

Until May 22, pro-government forces had not looked strong enough to break Al-Shabaab's grip on parts of Mogadishu.

Last week's defection of a veteran warlord with hundreds of fighters may have prompted Ahmed to order the new offensive.

But experts say pro-government forces would be hard-pushed to extend their reach to distant provinces, increasing the risk of protracted fighting in a country that has known little but violence and anarchy since its dictator was ousted in 1991.

An important figure in any reconciliation would be hard-line opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who ran Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia alongside Ahmed in late 2006.

But he told Reuters on May 22 that fighting the Western-backed government was a religious obligation and that the opposition forces would defeat the administration soon.