MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali rebels seized two more towns on Monday and corpses lay outside a Mogadishu mosque as the death-toll from battles between Islamist-led insurgents and allied Ethiopian-Somali troops rose to at least 85.
After mortars and machine-gun fire rocked the capital over the weekend in the worst fighting for months, Islamist fighters seized the southern coastal town of Guda, killing four Somali soldiers and wounding at least seven more, locals said.
"The town is under their control at the moment," politician Omar Abdullahi Farole said from the area. That dawn attack added to at least 81 people dead in Mogadishu over the weekend.
The rebels have in the last few months launched an increasing number of hit-and-run raids on small towns -- seizing control from local government-allied militias, only to melt away before reinforcements arrive.
Analysts say the Islamists' militant al Shabaab wing is behind the attacks, which appear to be a show of strength designed to stretch the Ethiopian and Somali troops, rather than an attempt to win and hold territory.
Islamist fighters took another town, Dinsor, in south-central Somalia, on Monday. And they imposed sharia law on another locality, Wajid, taken in the same area at the weekend.
"They warned the public against erecting illegal checkpoints, smoking cigarettes, chewing (the narcotic leaf) khat and watching movies," Wajid resident Aden Abdirahman said.
In Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops took over a mosque run by the moderate Tabligh group, arresting some inside and others in the northern neighbourhood that is an Islamist stronghold.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said she saw five dead bodies outside the mosque. One appeared Asian, she told Reuters.
Local media stations Shabelle and HornAfrik quoted locals as saying Ethiopian troops killed at least 10 people including some clerics -- but there was no independent confirmation of that.
Another resident, Abdulahi Mohamud, said at least 20 people -- mostly women and children -- had been trapped in the mosque where Ethiopian tank crews had dug deep defensive trenches. "Two Somalis who have been beheaded are also lying there," he said.
U.S. TERROR LIST
Backed by Ethiopia, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government drove the Islamists out of Mogadishu at the end of 2006, but has since then faced an Iraq-style insurgency of near-daily assassinations and roadside bombings.
Washington last month put Shabaab on its terrorism list.
A spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he was "deeply concerned" at the flare-up since the weekend, "deplores the substantial loss of life and injuries," and urged all parties to avoid endangering civilian lives.
U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, who is trying to broker peace talks, condemned the "senseless" violence. "I once again appeal to everyone to accelerate efforts to restore stability and unity and stop the violence which is bringing only misery and destruction to the people of Somalia."
The violence has swelled an internal refugee population of about one million. The weekend fighting in Mogadishu was mainly in the already largely deserted north of the city, but Reuters reporters saw scores of Somalis heading out of the capital.
"This morning as I was trying to escape the fighting which I feared might restart, I saw four dead men I knew lying in the neighbourhood," Mogadishu resident Hussein Abdulle said.
Meanwhile, police on Monday arrested an editor with the Shabelle radio station accusing him of airing false information regarding the fighting.
"He reported that Islamist forces attacked and seized Gulwade compound where police are staying. It was a lie since no fighting took place there. We will put him on trial for airing false reports to the public," police commander Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdullahi told Reuters.
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