MOGADISHU, Somalia — Thousands of people in speeding trucks or pulling carts piled high with clothes and furniture fled a region north of Mogadishu on Thursday amid the sounds of gunfire and explosions as government troops and their allies tried to take more ground from Islamist insurgents.
The Afgoye corridor has been a shelter for hundreds of thousands of people seeking relief from violence that has plagued Mogadishu the last several years.
African Union and Somali forces pushed al-Shabab militants out of Mogadishu last August and are now trying to seize areas outside of Mogadishu. This week, they moved into the Afgoye corridor to pursue al-Shabab.
"It was a scary situation. Fighting has been going on since yesterday, so this is a chance to escape," said Hakimo Ahmed, who fled from Afgoye town, 30 kilometers (20 miles) outside Mogadishu, with her five children. "Everyone has fled. Only animals and armed men are on the streets."
She spoke with a reporter at a checkpoint where police searched people and their household goods.
Another Somali fleeing the fightingsaid anti-aircraft missiles were slamming into homes. Heavily armed soldiers and tanks massed on scrubland on the edge of Afgoye town. Military officials predict they will soon control it.
"Al-Shabab is on the backfoot," claimed Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman of the African Union force in Somalia. "The idea is to set free the displaced people in Afgoye so that they can access humanitarian aid."
An estimated 400,000 refugees had been in the agricultural town.
The top U.N. humanitarian official for Somalia, Mark Bowden, on Wednesday called on African Union and Somali troops to minimize the impact of the fighting on civilians. He said he is concerned prolonged fighting could lead to displacement of settlements where victims of last year's famine now live.
Mogadishu is already teeming with thousands of displaced people, including squatters recently evicted from government-owned buildings. Rental prices have recently shot up as Somalia's capital undergoes normalization after two decades of anarchy.
"I don't know where I shall stay with my children, because there are no homes," Mahad Tifow, a refugee, said in Mogadishu. "We can't rent homes because they are overpriced."