MOGADISHU, Somalia - A radical Islamic group driven from power a year ago by a Western-supported offensive is making a significant comeback in Somalia, and the government can do little to stop it, officials said yesterday, as shelling and gun battles in the capital killed at least 17 people.
Sheikh Qasim Ibrahim Nur, director of security at Somalia's National Security Ministry, said the government had no power to resist the Council of Islamic Courts, which the United States has accused of having ties to al-Qaeda.
He said the fighters had regrouped and were poised to launch a major attack, adding that the government had "no power to resist."
Mortar rounds slammed into the biggest market in Mogadishu, killing 12 people and wounding more than 40. Five others were killed in a separate gun battle. The death toll was expected to rise from the latest bloodshed blamed on Islamic insurgents.
"I saw so many dead people lying on the road, I couldn't even look at them, I was so scared for my life," resident Salah Garweyne said. At least 19 of those wounded by the shelling were in critical condition, said Hassan Osman Isse at Medina Hospital.
The Council of Islamic Courts has been waging an Iraq-style insurgency.
"About 80 percent of Somalia is not safe and is not under control of the government," Nur said. "Islamists are planning to launch a massive attack."
Presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud also said that the Muslim fighters were regrouping and that they had "a lot of weapons and foreign fighters."
The Council of Islamic Courts was driven from power last year when Ethiopia intervened, with the tacit approval of the United States, backing the government with soldiers and fighter jets.
Remnants of the group then launched an insurgency, causing more bloodshed.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged more African nations to send peacekeepers to Somalia, perhaps the most strategically located nation in the Horn of Africa. At a crossroads between the Middle East and Africa, Somalia dominates vital sea lanes, although rampant piracy has made the waters treacherous.
About 1,800 Ugandan peacekeepers are in Somalia, officially as the vanguard of a larger African Union peacekeeping force, although no other countries have sent reinforcements. Ethiopia, which sent soldiers to Somalia last year to back the government in its fight against the Islamic militants, is not part of the peacekeeping force.
The United States can do little by itself in Somalia. An intervention in the 1990s left 18 U.S. servicemen dead.