Civilians flee homes amid fears of fresh Mogadishu violence

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Civilians caught between pro-government and opposition forces in the Somali capital fled their homes Tuesday as the heavily armed rivals reinforced their positions after clashes that left three dead.

Mogadishu is witnessing its worst political violence in years after elections were delayed and the president extended his mandate despite warnings that doing so risked instability in the fragile country.

Months of talks backed by the United Nations failed to overcome the election impasse and the dispute turned violent Sunday as forces loyal to the president traded gunfire with fighters allied to his political rivals.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all parties to refrain from further violence while the United States, a key ally, warned of sanctions if negotiations for elections did not urgently resume.

Police said Monday that three people — two police officers and one opposition soldier — were killed in the skirmishes as the warring sides barricaded roads and guarded their territory with trucks mounted with machine guns.

Tensions remained high Tuesday as civilians in some Mogadishu districts began evacuating their homes, piling their belongings into rickshaws or donkey carts ahead of feared return to violence.

“This is a horrible situation Mogadishu is facing today. People are fleeing their houses because of this increased military tension”, said Said Ali, a witness.

– ‘Fear for our lives’ –

Residents in Siigaale, a neighbourhood in southern Mogadishu, said opposition reinforcements arrived overnight and had taken up positions not far from government troops.

“We fear for our lives… We have decided to get out of here before it is too late,” said Shamis Ahmed, a mother of five her abandoned her home.

Tensions had been rising in the capital since February when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term expired before elections were held, and street protests against his rule were broken up with gunfire.

Earlier this month the president, better known by his nickname Farmajo, signed a law extending his mandate by two years, further angering his political opponents who declared the measure unconstitutional.

Analysts have warned that the political crisis risks splintering Somalia’s security forces along clan lines, and say soldiers from the national army have already been entering the capital to fight for their respective opposition leaders.

The fragile nation has not had an effective central government since the collapse of a military regime in 1991 led to decades of civil war and lawlessness fuelled by clan conflicts.

For more than a decade conflict has centred on an Islamist insurgency by the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab. Observers have warned the latest crisis distracts from the fight against the militants, who control swathes of Somali territory.