MOGADISHU, Somalia - Islamic insurgents fought their way toward Somalia's presidential palace Sunday in fighting that killed dozens and wounded about 150, officials said. African Union peacekeepers directly intervened for the first time to support government forces.
An Associated Press reporter saw several bodies and two AU tanks on the front line. Government forces used rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of trucks, which they fired horizontally through the streets.
"The fighting in Mogadishu has entered a new phase," said Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the al-Shabab rebel group, which is believed to have ties to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab denies any ties.
"Now it's between us and the AMISOM," he said, referring to the AU peacekeeping force's acronym. "AMISOM was backing up the government directly, but we will keep fighting."
The city's main Medina hospital was chaos, with bloodied nurses performing frantic triage and a tent set up outside to deal with the overflow of casualties. Screaming relatives begged for help and water for the wounded.
Medina hospital official Duniya Ali Mohamed said most of the wounded were women and children and that hospital workers had not slept for the last 24 hours.
"These are the worst armed clashes in the capital for the last two months," she said.
The AU was drawn into the fighting after the insurgents advanced into the north of the capital and directly threatened their positions, a spokesman said. The peacekeepers' direct involvement in fighting could increase the rate of attacks against them at a time when the government is desperately seeking more resources and manpower from the international community.
"Our troops were in an imminent danger, so we had to take some limited action," AU spokesman Bahoku Barigye said. "That does not mean we are fully involved in the combat."
The AU was forced to intervene after the insurgents fought their way to just over half a mile (1 kilometre) from the presidential palace, Mogadishu deputy mayor Abdifitah Shawey said. The 4,300 beleaguered peacekeepers generally try to avoid being drawn into the conflict to preserve their neutrality. They defend the capital's port, airport and key government buildings.
Shawey said three government soldiers were killed. Government commander Salad Ali Jelleh said 40 insurgents had been killed, but did not specify how the bodies were identified. Official death tolls are notoriously unreliable and both sides have manipulated casualty figures in the past.
An unknown number of civilians were also killed. Ali Kamim, staggering into the street from a collapsed house, told a reporter for The AP he had been inside with his four children when it was hit by a mortar shell. When he regained consciousness, covered in dust and blood, all four were dead.
The Islamists recently intensified their efforts to capture Mogadishu after an exiled leader returned in April and pulled the disparate insurgent factions together into an alliance.
Various Islamist groups have been fighting the U.N.-backed government since being chased from power 2 1/2 years ago. The situation is complicated by the continual splintering and reforming of alliances and a tangled web of clan loyalties.
The impoverished Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government for 18 years.