96 people killed in fighting in Somali capital

Heavy weapons fire echoed through the city as the fighting spread to another Mogadishu neighborhood. The battle between the Islamic Court Union and the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism has centered on the northern neighborhood of Sii-Sii, with neither side gaining an advantage.

Most of the victims in the most recent fighting were civilians caught in the crossfire.

"Despite the Islamic courts' unilateral cease fire, there are no traces of an end to the hostilities," said Abdi Kariin, a foreign exchange dealer.

The U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, issued a statement Wednesday appealing for "leaders on both sides to step back from the brink and reconsider the damage they are inflicting on the population."

"Whatever the allegiances, the intermittent conflict between heavily armed camps has resulted in indiscriminate loss of life and has created fear and chaos for those civilians trapped in the crossfire," he said. "The indiscriminate use of heavy machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery in and between urban areas is unacceptable."

Islamic Court Union chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said Tuesday that his group would observe a cease-fire from late Tuesday, but it never took hold.

Abdulahi Shir'wa, a civil leader, said neutral groups were attempting to meet with the two militias on Wednesday to negotiate another cease-fire, but so far without success.

Nuur Daqle, one of the alliance's commanders, said he was ready to observe a cease-fire and had been told that the Islamic court militias were also ready to stop fighting, but that so far, he'd seen no let up in the battle.

"We are ready to cease fire, but the so-called Islamic courts are unreliable, they are offering, but keep on shooting at us," he said.

A spokesman for the courts could not be immediately reached from comment.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi also called on all sides to stop fighting from his government's headquarters in Baidoa, 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Mogadishu. Though his government has U.N. backing, it has so far failed to assert itself outside of Baidoa.

Somalia has had no effective central government since 1991, when warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other - carving this nation of an estimated 8 million people into a patchwork of anarchic, clan-based fiefdoms.

Islamic fundamentalists have portrayed themselves as an alternative capable of bringing order and peace, but they have not hesitated to use force and have allegedly linked up with al-Qaida terrorists.

The secular Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism militia and the Islamic Court Union militia have been squaring off for several weeks to stake out strategic positions in preparation for a larger battle for control of Mogadishu.

Rumors abound that the United States is backing the secular forces. Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed told The Associated Press in an interview last week that he believes the American government is supporting the secular alliance, which includes ministers in an interim Cabinet, as a way of fighting several top al-Qaida operatives that are being protected by radical clerics. Ahmed offered no evidence, and the U.S. has said only that it had met with a wide variety of Somali leaders in an effort to fight international terrorists in the country.

Overnight, victims continued to pour into the capital's hospitals.

"Referring to the information I receive from the main hospitals in Mogadishu this morning, at least 90 people were killed and nearly 200 others wounded since the fighting flared up on Sunday" said Dr. Mohamed Hassan of Ayaan Hospital.

Later on Monday, officials reported that another six people had died in Wednesday's fighting.

Noncombatants said they distrust both sides in the fighting.

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