6 children killed in mortar attacks

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – At least six children were killed in mortar attacks Thursday not far from a building where a long-awaited peace conference opened in the Somali capital, the mayor said.

The children died as they played soccer a few hundred yards from the conference, said Mayor Mohamed Dheere, adding that three others were wounded.

“Terrorists were behind these mortar attacks. They wanted to undermine the peace process and they missed their target and killed children,” Dheere said.

The conference had opened briefly Sunday, but was postponed after eight mortar rounds landed near the venue. The meeting has been delayed several times due to violence and infighting.

In the latest shelling, residents near the conference in a northern part of the Somali capital heard five mortar explosions, said police Col. Abdi Shino, who added that none hit the venue.

The reconciliation conference began hours after a short gunbattle killed at least two people.

More than 1,200 delegates were tackling issues that have stoked Somalia’s 16-year conflict, such as clan arguments, looted property, a new constitution and general elections by 2009, said Ali Mahdi Mohamed, the organizing committee’s chairman.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said the Mogadishu conference was “historic,” despite opposition.

Abdirahman Mohamud Shift, a conference spokesman, said organizers hoped the talks would last a month. He said the talks would resume Saturday.

The reconciliation conference was a key requirement of the transitional charter that led to the government’s 2004 formation.

Only junior representatives of the Hawiye, a major clan, attended the opening. Hawiye elders have been key critics of the conference, questioning its independence of government interference.

Late Wednesday, a battle between government soldiers and suspected insurgents broke out near Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market.

“It was the worst gunbattle I have ever heard. They used all sorts of weapons, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Mohamud Ibrahim, who watched from a hotel’s rooftop.

A government soldier and a civilian were killed, police said.

Over the weekend, Islamic militants threatened to disrupt the gathering, saying anyone who takes part “is sentenced to death.” The threat came from the Shabab, the militant wing of an Islamic group that ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year. The group was driven from its strongholds in December, but vowed to launch an Iraq-style insurgency until Somalia is ruled by an Islamic theocracy.

Mogadishu has seen little peace since government troops backed by Ethiopian forces drove Islamic hard-liners out. Bombs, attacks on government installations, assassination attempts and gunbattles are common, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

The government said the Shabab’s threats would not disrupt the conference. Somali and Ethiopian troops patrolled the streets and dozens of checkpoints were set up along roads.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned against one another. The United Nations-backed government has struggled to assert control since it formed in 2004.

Uganda has about 1,700 troops in Somalia, as the vanguard of an African Union peacekeeping force, though so far no other countries have sent reinforcements. On Wednesday, the AU voted to extend its mission for another six months until January 2008.

AP-ES-07-19-07 1218EDT

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