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Shelling, gunbattles kill at least 17 in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu

    MOGADISHU, Somalia — Mortar rounds slammed into the biggest market in Mogadishu on Thursday and gunbattles erupted across the city, killing 17 people hours after a government official said radical Muslims had regrouped and were poised to launch a massive attack.
    At least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in the blasts in the Somali capital and the death toll was expected to rise from the latest bloodshed blamed on Islamic insurgents. Another five were killed in a separate gunbattle in the city.
    ‘‘I saw so many dead people lying on the road, I couldn’t even look at them, I was so scared for my life,’’ resident Salah Garweyne told The Associated Press.
    At least 19 of the wounded by the shelling were in critical condition, said Dr. Hassan Osman Isse at Medina Hospital.
    Before the attacks, Sheik Qasim Ibrahim Nur, director of security at the National Security Ministry, said the government has ‘‘no power to resist the Islamists.’’
    ‘‘About 80 percent of Somalia is not safe and is not under control of the government,’’ Nur told the AP. ‘‘Islamists are planning to launch a massive attack against the (government) and its allied troops.’’
    Nur appealed for international support, saying Islamic fighters ‘‘are everywhere.’’
    Presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud also said that the Muslim fighters were regrouping, and said they have ‘‘a lot of weapons and foreign fighters.’’
    President Abdullahi Yusuf was in London for what his aides described as a regular medical checkup. On Thursday, the 73-year-old president was said to be well, but uncertainty over his condition persists, adding to the tension in his homeland.
    Officials from Ethiopia, which has troops in Somalia backing Yusuf’s government, were not immediately available for comment Thursday.
    Government officials rarely acknowledge what many observers have concluded about their tenuous position. There are increasing signs that the Islamic extremist group that controlled much of southern Somalia last year is again gaining power in this Horn of Africa nation.
    Members of the group and the feared Shabab — its military wing — have been spotted with increasing frequency throughout central Somalia.
    The Islamic group, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, was driven from power last year when Ethiopia backed the government with soldiers and fighter jets. Ethiopia’s intervention had the tacit approval of the United States, which accuses the Council of Islamic Courts of having links to al-Qaida.
    In Kismayo, Somalia’s third-largest city, a member of the Shabab said his group was sending soldiers to the capital daily to fight the Ethiopians. The fighter asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. Kismayo is some 310 miles south of the capital.
    Over the weekend, about 50 heavily armed militiamen briefly overran Bula Burte town in central Somalia, some about 130 miles north of the capital, said the regional governor, Yusuf Dabaged.
    ‘‘The so-called insurgents are increasing in the region,’’ Dabaged said. ‘‘From now on we will fight them ruthlessly.’’
    After the council was ousted, remnants launched an Iraq-style insurgency, throwing this already beleaguered nation into bloody chaos. The country is now facing what the United Nations says is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Africa, and a local aid group says some 6,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting this year.
    Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to squalid refugee camps.
    Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991, then turned on one another. The current government was formed in 2004 with the support of the U.N., but has struggled to assert any real control.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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