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Hospitals at capacity as fighting rages in Somalia

Medicine runs short as violence enters 6th day

Insurgents spoke from a jeep mounted with a gun in Mogadishu, Somalia. Some civilians were slain in the crossfire and others fled with little to eat and no shelter. (Abdi Farah/Associated Press)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- There are no empty hospital beds in Somalia's bloodstained capital, and barely enough bandages to patch up the wounded. Even bottles of medicine are running dry.

But patients kept pouring in yesterday -- and they were the lucky ones, having survived another day of bullets and mortar shells as Islamic insurgents battled troops allied to the country's fragile acting government.

"Even the shades of the trees are occupied at this point," said Dahir Dhere, director of Medina Hospital, the largest health facility in Mogadishu. "We are overwhelmed."

Fighting rocked the city for a sixth straight day as Somalia struggled with its latest humanitarian crisis, its civilians getting slaughtered in the crossfire and others fleeing with little to eat and no shelter.

A local human rights group estimates 1,000 civilians were killed earlier this month in four days of fighting and more than 250 have died in the latest battles. UN officials estimate more than 320,000 of the city's 2 million residents have fled since February.

Ahmed Mohamed, 32, was not one of them. Shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell hit him over the weekend, crushing his right leg.

"The doctors told me I would die unless they cut off my leg," Mohamed said, tears streaming down his face at Keysaney Hospital, which is packed beyond capacity with nearly 200 people. "So I have to let them do it."

Mogadishu's other major medical facility, Al-Hayat Hospital, also reported all its beds full.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi insisted yesterday that the interim government was winning its war with the insurgents, but he called for greater support from the international community.

"If we do not get international support, the war may spread throughout the region and Africa," Gedi said. "These terrorists want to destabilize the whole region."

The government and its Ethiopian backers have been facing increasing pressure from the United States, European Union, and United Nations over the mounting civilian death toll, but they appear determined to gain control of Mogadishu before a national reconciliation conference in June.

The fighting has decimated the capital, already one of the most violent and gun-infested cities in the world.

At least 18 civilians died yesterday, said Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairman of the Elman Human Rights Organization group. A 6-month-old baby was among those wounded, said a witness, Khadija Farah.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned against each other. The western city of Baidoa, where the interim parliament is based, was dubbed the "City of Death" in the 1990s during a drought and famine. Mogadishu, once a beautiful seaside capital, is now a looted shantytown.

A national government was established in 2004 with help from the United Nations, but it has failed to assert any real control in the country.

Last month, troops from neighboring Ethiopia used tanks and attack helicopters to crush a growing insurgency linked to the Council of Islamic Courts, a hard-line religious movement that had controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia for six quiet months in 2006.

The group was driven from power in December by Somali and Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by special forces from the United States, which accused the Islamic group of having ties to Al Qaeda. The militants reject any secular government, and vow to fight until Somalia becomes an Islamic state.

Mogadishu and its surrounding towns are scenes of despair. Women and children flee on foot with little more than their clothes and some cooking pots, then sleep by the side of the road. In Afgoye, about 20 miles from Mogadishu, people fought over a spot shaded by a tree.

"Everyone wants to sit in the small area under the tree," said Asha Hassan Mohamed, a mother of seven who reached Afgoye last week but returned to Mogadishu because she couldn't find any food. "It's so crowded because there is no shelter."

The United Nations said the fighting has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged country's recent history, with many of the city's residents trapped because roads out of Mogadishu are blocked.

Catherine Weibel, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said many of those who haven't fled the capital are too vulnerable to do so.

"All the people who are sick, in wheelchairs, disabled, they cannot leave," she said.

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