Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 14:36 UK

Somalis die in mountain clashes

Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia
Ethiopia troops are struggling to exert their control in Somalia

Clashes in central Somalia between Ethiopian troops and Islamic insurgents have killed at least 20 people.

The fighting began when insurgents ambushed an Ethiopian convoy in a mountainous region 300km north of the capital, killing eight soldiers.

Eyewitnesses said the Ethiopians responded by killing at least 10 people tending livestock nearby.

Earlier this week, rights group Amnesty International said Somali civilians are totally at the mercy of armed groups.

It said the situation was "dire" in the centre and the south with government troops, their Ethiopian allies and Islamist insurgents "out of control".

In separate incidents, a bomb killed three government soldiers in Baidoa and a UN driver was shot by militiamen on Wednesday.

Somalia has been without a central government for more than 17 years and for the past 17 months, the Ethiopian-backed interim government has been struggling to exert its control over the country.

Prominent Islamists die

The ambush took place on Wednesday between the villages of Garsani and Nur Fanah in Hiran region.

We condemn this senseless killing and once again, urge all parties to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian staff and cargo across the country
WFP's Peter Goossens

The BBC's Ayanle Abdi in the area said at least 10 civilians died in the fighting.

Two prominent regional Islamist officials, including Sheikh Amin Barkhadle, in charge of Hiran region for the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), were killed in the clashes, he says.

No-one has admitted carrying out the attack in Baidoa.

But the al-Shabab militant group had said it would retaliate after a US air strike killed one of its military commanders last week.

Al-Shabab is the militant wing of the UIC which ruled much of Somalia in 2006 before being ousted by Ethiopian forces backed by Somali government troops.

On Tuesday, Amnesty accused Ethiopian soldiers of carrying out killings, torture, rape, beatings, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances.

The Ethiopian government denied this and said Amnesty was ignoring widespread human rights abuses committed by Somali militants.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said its contracted truck driver was shot on Wednesday at a checkpoint in central Mudug region where militiamen were demanding money.

A militiaman opened fire on the convoy of 12 trucks carrying food aid, and shot one of the drivers who later died in hospital, WFP said in a statement.

"We condemn this senseless killing and once again, urge all parties to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian staff and cargo across the country," said WFP's Peter Goossens said.

The United Nations reports that soaring food prices have already forced more than a third of all Somalis to rely on outside assistance to feed their families.

Last week, the UN Food Security Analysis Unit warned that the country was facing a major famine caused by a prolonged drought and the soaring food prices.

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