Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies pounded insurgent positions across the capital Thursday with helicopters and tanks, sending residents running for their lives during a fierce surge in fighting that killed at least 10 people. A witness reported seeing a dead soldier's body dragged through the streets.
The military operation was the beginning of a three-day push to restore order in Mogadishu as Ethiopian troops withdraw. The capital has been under near daily attack from Islamic insurgents, said Mohamed Mohamud Husein, spokesman for the Somali president.
"The operation will take at most three days, and it's aimed at rooting the terrorists out of the city," he said.
Qoje Omar Gesey, a resident of the capital, said he spotted two helicopters Thursday morning.
"One was making a surveillance and the other one was dropping several bombs," Gesey said, adding that the bombs fell near a former market in northern Mogadishu.
Earlier Thursday, at least six people were killed in fresh skirmishes between Ethiopian troops supporting the fragile Somali government and insurgents, residents said. The dead were believed to be civilians.
Khalid Mohamed Arabey, who lives near Mogadishu stadium in the south, said the Ethiopian troops met with stiff resistance from a dozen gunmen, who used rocket propelled grenades, mortars and machine-guns. The Ethiopians responded with artillery and tank shells.
Bare Abdulle, a Mogadishu resident, said he saw the body of a soldier being dragged.
"A civilian was dragging a body of an Ethiopian soldier," Abdulle said. He also saw four bodies lying in the street.
Meanwhile, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country had successfully accomplished its mission in Somalia. He said extremists are no longer a "clear and present danger" to Ethiopia.
"After breaking the backbones of extremist forces, our defense forces have started to withdraw," Meles told his country's parliament. He said "more than two-thirds" of his forces have returned to Ethiopia, but gave no figures.
Meles added that his government would continue to train Somali security forces.
Somalia has seen little more than anarchy for more than a decade. The government, with crucial support from Ethiopian troops, only months ago toppled an Islamic militia that had controlled Mogadishu.
Insurgents believed to be the remnants of Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts have staged almost daily attacks against the government, its armed forces and the Ethiopian military. Last week, a cargo plane carrying equipment for African Union peacekeepers here was shot down by a missile during takeoff, killing the 11-person crew.
The United States has accused the Islamic group of having ties to al Qaeda.
The U.N.'s refugee agency said 57,000 people have fled violence in the Somali capital since the beginning of February, including more than 10,000 people who fled the city in the last week.
The figures were based on information provided by non-governmental organizations in Somalia, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement released late Wednesday.
"There has been a steady exodus from the city since the beginning of February, when armed groups clashed with forces of" the government, the agency said.