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By Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Mortar bombs killed at least 30 people in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Thursday after rebels launched shells at the president's plane and African Union (AU) peacekeepers responded with heavy artillery fire.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who was leaving for a summit in Uganda, was not hurt. But residents and medical workers said at least 30 people died and scores more were wounded in one of the heaviest exchanges to rock the city for weeks.
Farah Olow, a shopkeeper in the sprawling Bakara market, told Reuters by telephone that six people were killed by a shell that demolished a home there.
"They were taking cover in a concrete building, but such big shells can penetrate the strongest house," he said. "We can't go out to count how many more are dead. Bombs are raining on us."
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 trying to overthrow the country's transitional administration.
Washington accuses the rebel group of being al Qaeda's proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state.
A Reuters journalist near the AMISOM base said the AU troops fired at least 35 BM-21 rockets and mortar shells at Bakara, and that towers of dark smoke poured from the market.
Insurgents use the area to launch their artillery attacks, and most residents have fled because of frequent AU strikes at the al Shabaab bases in Bakara and surrounding districts.
At the time of the attack, the market was busy with civilians who had returned to buy food and other basic goods.
Witnesses said al Shabaab began firing mortar bombs from at least six locations in and around Bakara as the president's plane was leaving the international airport's coastal runway.
"Insurgents fired mortar bombs at the plane carrying President Ahmed, and then AMISOM responded with shells. That is how the problem started," said Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of Mogadishu's Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation.
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 they could bomb the peacekeepers into submission.
"The insurgents are day dreaming and practising wishful thinking," Major Barigye Ba-hoku told Reuters.
The chaos onshore has also spilt into the Indian Ocean and the shipping lanes that link Asia to Europe through the Gulf of Aden, where heavily-armed Somali pirate gangs have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by hijacking ships.
The European Union naval force said the gunmen attacked two cargo vessels west of the Seychelles on Thursday, boarding the Panama-flagged MV Al Khaliq. An Italian-flagged cargo ship evaded a separate attack without casualties.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Guled; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Michael Roddy)