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Somalia Violence Explodes; Thousands Flee Capital

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NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of hopeful glimmers in one of the most explosive countries in the world, violence again is roiling Somalia as mortars, machine-gun fire and rockets pound the bloodstained capital.

More than 100 people, mostly civilians, have been slaughtered in a week and thousands are streaming out of Mogadishu as insurgents close in on the presidential palace. The Western-backed government is struggling to survive.

All this comes as Somalia's government, formed in January, tries to quell the insurgency by accommodating its stated goal of an Islamic state. A former Islamist insurgent was elected president this year and promised to strike a deal with his ex-comrades, implementing Shariah law to appease them.

The U.N. has brokered peace talks. Developed nations worried by piracy off Somalia's coast promised the new government millions of dollars in aid. But all those efforts to stabilize Somalia seem to be failing.

What went wrong?

Increasing international support to bolster the new government has in some ways had the opposite effect: It has put the extremist groups on the offensive as they watch more Somalis support the administration, led by former rebel President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

The jihadists' true objective appears to be seizing direct control of the country and using it to spread their influence into ethnic Somali areas outside Somalia.

International donors pledged in April to send more than $250 million in military equipment and material as well as development aid, to strengthen Somalia's security forces and try to stop the rampant attacks by armed Somali pirates that have plagued one of the world's most important waterways.

But the Somali government still cannot assert control on its own and direct Western intervention is a political impossibility.

The Somali Islamists' dream of a strict Muslim state is being fed by an increasing influx of foreign fighters from countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, experts say.

"The objective of these foreign-backed extremist groups extends beyond Mogadishu and they intend to push deeper into other African countries," said Ted Dagne, a Washington-based Africa specialist who recently visited Mogadishu.

He said the insurgents want to extend their influence to Somali populations in Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia.

"If these groups succeed ... they will use this area as a central operational command," he said.

The U.N. Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Friday up to 300 foreign fighters were the driving force behind recent attacks.

"There is no doubt from sources overt and covert that ... there (was) significant involvement of foreigners," he said in Nairobi, Kenya, adding that some were from Africa and others from "outside the continent."

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre before turning on one another. A Western-backed transitional government whose president was closely allied with Ethiopia was formed in 2004, but failed to assert control. A radical Islamic group seized power in much of the country in 2006.

Worried about a threat on its border, Orthodox Christian Ethiopia sent in forces in 2006 accompanied by a small number of U.S. special operations troops. In early 2007, the U.S. conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members.

That mission helped drive radical Islamists from six months in power, but the insurgency soon began. Opposition leaders tried to drive out the Ethiopians, whose unpopular two-year presence was seen by many Somalis as an occupation, saying they would refuse to talk peace until the Ethiopian forces had gone.

The Ethiopians pulled out this year, leaving behind a 4,350-troop mission of African Union peacekeepers who have mainly been confined to their bases for safety. Hardline opposition leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys _ who is believed to have al-Qaida links _ says there will be no peace talks with the government unless the "foreign invaders" leave.

The violence "has again demonstrated that such groups were not, as they claimed, fighting against Ethiopian troops but are trying to establish a very different agenda," Ould-Abdallah said this week.

The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden declared his support for the Islamists. It accuses the leading faction _ al-Shabab _ of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

But the Americans are hesitant to take a leading role in Somalia and currently have no overt involvement. A botched intervention in the early 1990s left 18 U.S. servicemen dead and the legacy of the "Black Hawk Down" battle still weighs heavily on both countries.

Somalia also has to grapple with an age-old clan structure that makes governing the country nearly impossible. There are dozens of clan factions in the capital, each making demands on the government and each a potential spoiler, capable of extreme violence if ignored.

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Kennedy has covered East Africa since 2006.