MOGADISHU (AFP) — Somalia's President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed condemned on Monday what he termed as an invasion by foreign fighters as rebels battle to oust him in weeks of clashes that have killed more than 200 people.
The latest round of violence erupted on May 7 when hardline Islamist insurgents launched an offensive against government troops, wounding hundreds and forcing tens of thousands of others to flee.
"Somalia is being invaded by foreign fighters, whose main purpose is to turn the country into an Afghanistan or an Iraq," Sharif said at a rare news conference in his office.
"We call on the international community and the Somali people to help us in fighting against them," he added.
According to Somali security officials and foreign intelligence sources in the region, there are up to 500 foreign jihadist fighters in the troubled country, most of whom arrived over the past few months.
The rebels themselves have admitted to receiving the support of foreign fighters believed to be from Arab, Asian as well as European countries in their latest offensive against Sharif's fledgling administration.
At least 208 people have been killed and 700 wounded by the fighting, Humanitarian Affairs Minister Mohamoud Ibrahim Garweyne said Sunday.
"I can tell you that 80 percent of the people killed and injured are civilians who were caught in the crossfire," Garweyne said.
"The clashes have also displaced 8,367 families, who have reached temporary camps outside the capital where their livelihoods are very precarious," the minister said.
Over the weekend, the United Nations put the number of people displaced by the latest fighting at 57,000.
The rebel push is spearheaded by two armed groups: the Shebab, a hardline military movement with suspected links to Al Qaeda, and Hezb al-Islamiya, a more political group loyal to influential cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.
The Shebab, the former youth wing of an Islamist movement ousted by Ethiopia-backed Somali government forces in 2007, also claimed Sunday's car bomb at a military camp in the violence-wracked city.
"The attack was carried out by one of our young fighters who detonated his car inside the camp where the enemies of Allah are stationed," Sheikh Hussein Fidow, one of the group's officials, told reporters.
In February, they also claimed the single deadliest suicide attack on a base hosting the Burundi contingent of the AU forces.
The hardliners have rejected peace overtures by the government and even spurned the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) which has been one of their key demands.
In his press conference, Sharif praised what he described as "freedom fighting" by citizens spontaneously rising up against the insurgents.
"We welcome the efforts by Somali freedom fighters in some of the regions to fight against the culprits and the foreign fighters they brought the country," he said.
Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia in January, but their pullout caused concerns of a security vacuum and fears that Somalia risked becoming a haven for jihadists affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
Eritrea has been singled out as one African country backing the Somali radicals.
The AU wants UN sanctions on Eritrea, as well as an aerial exclusion zone in Somalia and the blockade of ports and airports to prevent the entry of foreign fighters and weapons shipments.
But Asmara rejected the call, blaming an east African regional grouping, whose sanction call last week was endorsed by the AU, for the chaos in Somalia.
The seaside capital has been ravaged by 18 years of almost uninterrupted civil conflict and hundreds of thousands of people had already fled following Ethiopia's invasion in late 2006.