By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, May 9 (Reuters) – Islamist rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades briefly seized a major police base in the heart of Somalia’s capital, residents said on Friday, raising even more doubt over prospects for rare peace talks.
Witnesses said the insurgents took control of the compound late on Thursday and burnt at least one government “technical” — a truck mounted with a heavy gun — before retreating as reinforcements arrived.
“The fighting was hideous, terrifying,” one resident, Hawa Abdi, told independent local broadcaster Shabelle by telephone from Mogadishu’s central Waberi district.
“I thought it would smash the walls of my concrete home.”
Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Issa Adow told Reuters their forces killed eight policemen, while two of their fighters died.
Government officials could not immediately be reached.
The attack in a heavily guarded area that neighbours the city’s air and sea ports followed a flare-up of fighting between the insurgents and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops in which at least 19 people were killed.
The violence cast a pall over tentative, U.N.-brokered peace talks between Somalia’s interim government and opposition exiles that were due to begin on Saturday in Djibouti.
The militants behind near-daily ambushes and roadside bombs are the remnants of an Islamist movement that was ousted by the government and its Ethiopian allies at the start of last year.
The leaders of that group, and other critics of President Abdullahi Yusuf, have since moved to Ethiopia’s arch-foe Eritrea and formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia.
They had repeatedly refused to meet government officials until Ethiopian troops left Somali soil. But last month they dropped that demand and agreed to send delegates to Djibouti.
The U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said the meeting would initially be attended by seven delegates from each side. If progress is made, more participants will fly in.
“This is the first time that the Somali parties have agreed to meet with a limited number of delegates, on a scheduled date within a specified time frame and at a planned venue,” he said.
“This is a clear indication that Somalis are willing to respect their commitments when they believe in what they are doing,” he said in a statement. “We should allow them to meet without outside interference and come to an understanding.”
A local human rights group says up to 6,500 civilians were killed by fighting in Mogadishu last year. About 1 million Somalis are refugees in their own country because of violence that residents say has stoked a wave of human rights abuses. (Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi; Editing by Matthew Tostevin) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)