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By Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Artillery battles between Islamist insurgents, Somali government forces and African Union (AU) peacekeepers killed at least 30 people in the capital Mogadishu on Thursday, residents and medical workers said.
Witnesses said the rebels launched volleys of mortar bombs at the heavily guarded international airport as President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed left for a summit in Uganda, prompting AU soldiers there to respond with artillery fire.
Ahmed was not hurt, but medical sources and residents said at least 30 people were killed and scores more injured in one of the heaviest exchanges to rock the lawless city for weeks.
Farah Olow, a shopkeeper in the sprawling Bakara market, told Reuters by telephone that six people were killed by one shell that demolished a home there.
"They were taking cover in a concrete building, but such big shells can penetrate the strongest house. We can't go out to count how many more are dead. Bombs are raining on us," he said.
Bakara, which is notorious for its open-air weapons bazaar, has long been viewed by the government and the AU force AMISOM as a stronghold of hardline Islamist al Shabaab insurgents.
Washington accuses the rebel group of being al Qaeda's proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state.
Fighting in Somalia has killed 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes, triggering one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies.
Western security agencies say the Horn of Africa nation has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
Last month, al Shabaab hit AMISOM's Mogadishu headquarters in an audacious twin suicide car bombing that killed 17 peacekeepers, including the Burundian deputy force commander.
An AMISOM spokesman declined to discuss the details of Thursday's clashes, but said the rebels were deluded if they thought the peacekeepers could bomb them into submission.
"The insurgents are day-dreaming and practising wishful thinking," Major Barigye Ba-hoku told Reuters.
Al Shabaab commanders and the group's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Guled; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Reuters