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Heavy gunfire erupts in Mogadishu as peacekeepers landded
MOGADISHU Mar 6, 2007 – Insurgents unleashed two attacks against the Somali government and its foreign allies in Mogadishu on Tuesday, just hours after Ugandan peacekeepers assigned to tame the anarchic city landed.
The concerted assaults, some of the heaviest in weeks, appeared timed to coincide with the arrival of some 350 Ugandans in the vanguard of an African Union mission to help restore law to a country mired in chaos since central rule crumbled in 1991.
More than a dozen mortar strikes hit the airport, where the Ugandans were camped after landing earlier. A Ugandan army spokesman said none of the soldiers was wounded.
"The military side of the airport has been hit. We cannot cross from this side to the other side," said a witness.
The Ugandans were the first batch of peacekeepers to arrive in Mogadishu since a U.S. and U.N. operation ended in failure in 1995, after relentless street battles with local militiamen.
The proposed 8,000-strong AU force is designed to help Somali President Abdillahi Yusuf's government extend its shaky authority over the Horn of Africa country.
Yusuf, backed by Ethiopian armor and air power in a lightning war over Christmas and New Year, routed rival Islamists who held most of southern Somalia for six months.
They fled into hiding vowing to wage holy war against foreign troops and guerrilla attacks have gradually built up.
Shortly after the airport attack, scores of masked fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns at government and Ethiopian troops at a base in Mogadishu's industrial area.
At least two civilians were killed in the attack, said a local reporter trapped by the gunfire at a nearby hospital.
Most of the Ugandans were flown in by the Algerian air force in C-130 cargo planes.
Last week, 35 Ugandan officers landed in Baidoa, the interim government's temporary capital in south-central Somalia. More are expected to arrive in the coming days to bring the Ugandan contingent to about 1,600.
The Ugandans are assigned to patrol Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous and gun-infested cities.
"It's a suicide mission. No one in their right mind would send 1,600 troops to Somalia now. They're sending in boys with no experience of this kind of mission," said a Western diplomat in the Ugandan capital Kampala, who declined to be named.
The insurgents are suspected of being a mix of defeated Islamists and clan militiamen resisting central rule that would end their private fiefdoms.
Two unmarked Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft flew in white military vehicles for the Ugandans with AU markings, including armored personnel carriers.
The AU force is needed to replace Ethiopian troops, which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he is eager to pull out after defeating the Islamists.
But as with its previous peacekeeping operation, in Sudan's Darfur region, the AU faces a shortage of money and equipment.
"I hope our partners will help us overcome the funding and logistical problems facing the AU," said Saed Djinnit, the group's commissioner for peace and security.
Nigeria , Ghana, Malawi and Burundi are also expected to send troops to join the AU force, but pledges so far make up only about half of the required number of soldiers.
None of the previous 13 attempts at a central government since dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre was toppled in 1991 have succeeded in taming the coastal city.
"Our mission is not to fight, but if the lives of troops are endangered, they have the right to fight back," Djinnit said.