Islamic insurgents dragged soldiers' corpses through the streets of this bloodstained capital Wednesday and set the bodies on fire, drawing crowds who threw rocks and kicked the smoldering remains during a surge of violence that killed at least 16 people and wounded dozens.
Wednesday marked some of the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu since a radical militia known as the Council of Islamic Courts was driven from the capital in December after six months in power. But the group has promised to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and mortar attacks pound the capital nearly every day.
An Associated Press photographer saw six corpses — all either Somali soldiers or their Ethiopian allies — burned and mutilated while masked men shouted "God is great!" Women wearing head scarves and flowing dresses pounded one of the corpses with rocks as a handful of young men looked on, cheering.
"They were shouting, 'God is great' and 'We don't want infidels,"' Abdi Jimale, a resident of Mogadishu, told the AP.
A similar scene grabbed the world's attention after Somali militiamen shot down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in 1993 during a failed mission to capture a warlord. The images of American troops being dragged through the streets led to the eventual withdrawal of U.N. forces and years of anarchy in Somalia.
Abdinasir Hussein, who said he dragged one soldier's corpse from the back of his motorbike, told the AP he wanted to show that Somalis will defeat the "invaders," referring to the Ethiopian troops.
"I'm happy to drag an Ethiopian soldier on the Mogadishu streets," Hussein said.
Ahmed Mohamed Botaan, a clan elder whose neighborhood was turned into a battleground Wednesday, said he counted 16 bodies, seven of which were government troops. Mogadishu's three hospitals reported at least seven dead and 36 wounded.
The fighting began before dawn Wednesday when Somali and Ethiopian soldiers entered an insurgent stronghold in southern Mogadishu in an attempt to consolidate their power over Mogadishu. But hundreds of masked men were waiting for them, prompting an hours-long gunfight.
An insurgent group linked to the Islamic courts, called the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations, claimed they were the target of the government offensive but that they had repulsed the attack.
"They were unable to bear the pain of bullets coming from all four directions," said a statement from the group posted on the Islamic courts' Web site.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing operation, said Wednesday's offensive was focused on parts of the capital controlled by the Habr Gedir clan, which was a major supporter of the more radical elements of the Islamic courts and remains opposed to the government.
"The next week will be very hot in Mogadishu," the official said.
The operation was meant to start Sunday, but was postponed so President Abdullahi Yusuf could make a final attempt to reach an agreement with Habr Gedir elders. Instead, militant clansmen used the time to prepare for the siege.
Yusuf's Darod clan and the Habr Gedir are traditional enemies. Habr Gedir elders have accused Yusuf of favoring his fellow Darod clansmen and recruiting only Darod into the new Somali army, transforming the conflict a complex mixture of clan, political and religious disputes.
The U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who also represents American interests in Somalia, condemned Wednesday's violence but said the U.S. government believes things are generally improving in Somalia. The United States had accused the Islamic courts of having ties to al Qaeda terrorists.
"On balance we do feel that the situation in Somalia is moving forward in a generally positive way," Ranneberger told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. The current administration has failed to assert control throughout the country, and the African Union has deployed a small peacekeeping force to defend it. But daily violence has continued in the capital, with civilians caught in the crossfire taking the brunt of the violence.
"The government should learn from today's defeat. Its soldiers were dragged through the streets," said Zainab Abdi, a mother of two children. She urged the government to reach out to the Islamic leaders, who are in hiding.
"Otherwise, civilians will keep dying," she said. "Who will the government rule if their people are killed every day?"