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Somalia battles measure success in meters

By Jane Ferguson for CNN
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Somalia's uncertain peace
  • Somalia-African Union score advances against al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab
  • The weak government forces are spreading out from a stronghold in the capital, Mogadishu
  • But each advance is hard won with fighting often house to house
  • Al-Shabaab controls large parts of Somalia and claims it carried out a bombing in Uganda

Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to cover as a journalist. Often news organizations rely on the courage of local freelancers to send pictures and stories to the outside world. In this exclusive report for CNN, journalist Jane Ferguson went to Somalia to examine the bloody struggle for power in a nation with strategic importance for the whole of east Africa.

Mogadishu, Somalia (CNN) -- In a city where brutal fighting is the norm, it is easy to glaze over reports of a surge in Mogadishu's violence this summer. But with the country's insurgents now attacking abroad and the expansion of Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers on the ground, the situation is shifting as much as the front lines.

Soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping mission AMISOM are pushing deeper into the city from what until now has been little more than a few blocks controlled by the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG.)

For years they have been battling to contain Islamist insurgents Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked group which controls much of central and southern Somalia.

Modest gains are hard fought, with the AU taking previously Al-Shabaab-held areas house by house. At one new outpost on a rooftop, Maj. Anthony Lukwago Mbusi's men were shelling Al-Shabaab positions as they cleared a few houses they took two days ago.

"We are making a mop-up operation within the buildings here and thereafter -- after they have moved into those tall buildings there," he said, pointing across the street. "AMISOM forces will move into those tall buildings, so that we can continue pushing these people out, flushing them out of the near region."

Somalia conflict
When we see them (foreign fighters), we kill them, also we get intelligence
--Captain Keith Katuringi
  • Somalia
  • War and Conflict
  • Al Qaeda

New outposts now stretch up the city's coastline to major hotels and the ancient port, with the old U.N. base -- abandoned in the mid '90s -- within sight.

The insurgents have put up a fierce resistance and TFG troops on the very front line have suffered heavy losses and casualties

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan saw a fresh offensive by Al-Shabaab. They attacked and killed government troops as well as AU peacekeepers through mortar attacks, suicide bombs and roadside bombs. In August, they attacked a hotel in Mogadishu killing more than 30 people including six parliamentarians.

In July, Islamist insurgents launched their first attack abroad -- with suicide bombings in Uganda's capital killing 76 people as they watched the World Cup final. During the tournament Al-Shabaab had banned watching or playing football, calling it un-Islamic and warning they would execute any fans caught around TVs.

The Kampala bombings sent a shock wave through Uganda, and President Yoweri Museveni requested a change in the peacekeepers' mandate, allowing them to take on a more offensive role against Al-Shabaab. This was rejected, but a small amount of additional troops were sent to Mogadishu.

Despite the AU's role remaining the same on paper, changes in their tactics this summer have been notable, adding up to half-a-dozen new outposts in the city and clearing some Al-Shabaab territory slowly. When quizzed on this, commanders say their new positions are there to "secure" the old ones.

Three new outposts have been positioned around the presidential palace and government area known as Villa Somalia. "We are now about 30 meters from Al-Shabaab," announced the commander at the new outposts. He drove us down to the front line where government soldiers were holding those precious few yards. He pointed beyond the barriers to a tall white house: "That is Monopolio market. That is where you will find foreigners."

Foreign fighters with jihadist experience elsewhere remain behind the scenes in the battle for Mogadishu, says the AU. "When we are fighting here, the foreigners are a bit in the rear," said the commander. Fighters from countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen give orders from front-line positions, he explained, holding tactical meetings and organizing munitions.

Further up town, two crumbling hotels on the seafront were seized over the past few months and are now the scene of intense fighting. Under heavy sniper fire from Al-Shabaab, Capt. Keith Katuringi was most interested in discussing foreign fighters, saying they come from as far as Chechnya. "We see them," he responded when I questioned how his men could know where the insurgents are actually from. "When we see them, we kill them. Also we get intelligence."

The source of that intelligence remains unexplained by the many military leaders who speak about it. Intelligence-gathering drones can now be heard above Mogadishu during the day and night. Most presume they are American. However, the Obama administration strongly denies any involvement in advising local forces.

"The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives," Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for Africa, told reporters in March. "Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia."

Somalia's local government is headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, previously a leader of the Union of Islamic Courts. Although Sheikh Ahmed is considered a moderate, the UIC raised eyebrows in the West because other prominent members were considered radicals.

At the African Union's main base in Mogadishu, both private security firms Dyncorp and Bancroft are present, working with the AU and traveling with them in military vehicles.

A New York Times article published last month reported that the CIA has stepped up its anti-al Qaeda raids in Somalia, and referred to concerns that increased outsourcing to private contractors risked reducing transparency in Washington.

Beyond the politics however, ordinary Somali's continue to suffer the brunt of this summer's violence.

The U.N. announced that in the two weeks spanning the end of August and start of September, more than 250 civilians had been killed in the crossfire in Mogadishu.

Children are particularly at risk in this conflict. Al-Shabaab is known to use child soldiers. This summer, the spike in violence was accompanied by an increase in kidnappings.

Shortly after I arrived in Mogadishu, reports reached the city of a mass kidnapping of around 100 boys from a rural town. Over the next week, military commanders reported children running towards AU posts firing AK-47s.

Capt. Keith's men experienced such attacks. He said they have no choice but shoot them. "We have no choice," he said. "It's unfortunate but we have no choice."