MOGADISHU, Somalia — Fierce fighting between Ethiopian-backed government forces and Islamic insurgents in Somalia's capital has killed nearly 400 people — mostly civilians — in the past four days, a Somali human rights group said Monday.
The fighting abated long enough Monday to allow thousands of people to flee the ruined coastal city on foot and in donkey carts, cars and trucks. Some 47,000 people — mainly women and children — have abandoned their homes in the last 10 days, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Since February, nearly 100,000 people have fled the violence, the agency said.
Monday's lull appeared to follow a truce between Ethiopian forces and insurgents, brokered by the capital's dominant clan. But Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said the accord was "null and void," and warned residents to go because the fighting could resume at any time to "clean al-Qaida elements from Mogadishu."
Ethiopian troops were seen reinforcing close to insurgent strongholds in the southern part of the city. Around 4,000 Ethiopian troops are in Mogadishu, said Western diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information related to security matters.
The casualty figures were the first to be compiled since the battles began Thursday, said Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairman of the Elman Human Rights Organization.
The group said 381 people were killed and 565 were wounded in the fighting, which started when Ethiopian troops with tanks and attack helicopters launched an offensive to crush insurgents linked to an Islamic group driven from power in December.
The tolls were calculated from hospital figures, local groups and burials but do not include Ethiopian soldiers that may have been killed, he said. The numbers may be much higher as bodies have not been collected from the dusty alleyways and backstreets in the south of the capital.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia said many of the wounded still need help. "Trapped by the fighting, many wounded are unable to access medical facilities and lie unattended in the streets," the agency said.
Ethiopia claims it has killed more than 200 insurgents during the offensive; the figure could not be independently confirmed.
On Monday, Gen. Abdullahi Ali Omar, the commander of Somalia's army, narrowly escaped a roadside bombing as he drove in a government convoy from his hotel, a clear sign the insurgency is still strong.
One soldier was injured in the blast, said presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamoud Hussein. "An al-Qaida cell was behind the explosion," he said. "They want to kill key government officials. They want to do here what they are doing in Iraq."
International efforts were under way to resolve the crisis, with European, African, Arab and U.S. diplomats expected to meet in Cairo on Tuesday.
In Eritrea, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was holding talks on the fighting with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea is accused of backing the Islamic movement that was driven from power in December by its rival, Ethiopia, along with U.S. special forces. The U.S. has accused the courts of having ties to al-Qaida.
On Saturday, a Ugandan member of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia was killed by a mortar. Uganda has about 1,400 troops in the force, the only contributing country so far.
The Islamic movement stockpiled thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition during the six months they controlled Mogadishu. The militants have long rejected any secular government and have sworn to fight until Somalia becomes an Islamic emirate.
The country has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned each other. A national government was established in 2004, but has failed to assert any real control.