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January 14, 2009

Insurgents attack Somalia's presidential palace

POLITICS - Islamic insurgents fired mortar rounds at Somalia's presidential palace and clashed with government forces Wednesday, leaving at least five civilians dead a day after Ethiopian troops handed over security duties.

Somali soldiers retaliated after the attack on the palace and some of their mortar rounds hit the capital's largest market, Bakara, killing three civilians and wounding nine others. Elsewhere, two male teenagers were killed when a mortar struck them as they ran to seek cover in a building.

The violence comes a day after neighbouring Ethiopia handed over security duties following a two-year deployment in Somalia. Somalia is currently fighting an Islamic insurgency and rampant piracy, and people fear it could collapse into chaos if extremists seize power.

In the past year, thousands of civilians have been killed in fighting and hundreds of thousands have fled the country. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when rival warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.

Its weak U.N.-backed government had called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group – which included the al-Shabab extremists at the centre of the current fighting – that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months.

The Ethiopians announced late last year they would end their unpopular presence as demanded under an October power-sharing deal signed between the Somali government and a relatively moderate faction of the Islamists.

Note: The U.S. State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization and al-Shabab gunmen frequently abduct foreigners and are involved in piracy.

Last week Somali oil pirates drowned in rough seas after receiving $3 million in ransom for an oil tanker.

2008 saw a rise in kidnappings in Somalia with foreigners often being targeted for ransoms on land and off Somalia's lawless coast, where pirates are currently holding about a dozen ships. At least six foreign aid workers and journalists remain in captivity in Somalia and awaiting ransoms.

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