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Fighting rages in Mogadishu

Islamic rebels challenge Somali government's control of capital city.

Somali Islamists of Al Shabaab take positions during clashes with Somali government forces in Mogadishu. An estimated 200 people have been killed in the fighting for control of the capital between Al Shabaab and the Western-backed transitional government. (Mowliid Abdi/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Mogadishu was torn by mortar and heavy machine gun fire early Wednesday as Islamist insurgents took on the forces of Somalia's Western-backed government.

The Islamic militant group Al Shabaab has stepped up attacks over the past two weeks and appears to be close to toppling the Somali government.

Two adults and a six-year boy were killed in a two-hour firefight early Wednesday, Mogadishu residents told The Associated Press. These deaths came on top of an estimated 200 killed in fighting over the last two weeks. Mogadishu’s three main hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says a further 45,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes as the new round of heavy fighting erupted. They will join the 3 million already in need of food aid.

Fears are growing that Al Shabaab will take control of Mogadishu, becoming the first self-confessed ally of Al Qaeda to seize a capital city since the Taliban took Kabul.

On Sunday Al Shabaab seized the president’s hometown of Jowhar, north of the capital, helping consolidate their control of south and central Somalia.

The six-nation regional grouping, called the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, met in Addis Ababa on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Somalia. The group called on the United Nations to impose an aerial and maritime blockade on Somalia, to cut off supplies to the Islamic extremists of Al Shabaab. The regional group charges that Al Shabaab is getting arms and foreign fighters through Somalia's ports and porous borders.

Foreign fighters are helping Al Shabaab, according to diplomats. “There is no doubt from many sources, covert or overt, that there is a significant number of foreign fighters in Somalia from within the continent and outside,” said U.N. special envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, when in Nairobi last week.

There may be as many as 900 foreigners fighting with Al Shabaab, according to one Western diplomat with long experience in Somalia.  “Foreign fighters are doing a lot of the command and control of the Shabaab,” he told GlobalPost.

Chechen, Yemen, Saudi and South Asian jihadists are being joined by others from Britain and the U.S., the diplomat said. “These [foreigners] are the most extreme, the ones with Al Qaeda links,” he added.