MOGADISHU: Thousands of people in speeding trucks, or pulling carts piled high with clothes and furniture, fled a region north of Mogadishu yesterday 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 during recent years.

Somali and AU forces pushed al-Shabaab militants out of Mogadishu last August and are now trying to seize areas outside the city. This week they moved into the Afgoye corridor to pursue the militant insurgents.

“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 the town of Afgoye, 30km outside Mogadishu, with her five children. “Everyone has fled. Only animals and armed men are on the streets.”

She spoke to a reporter at a checkpoint where police searched people and their household goods.

Other Somalis fleeing the fighting said anti-aircraft missiles had been slamming into homes.

Heavily armed soldiers and tanks massed on scrub land on the edge of Afgoye. Military officials predict that they will soon control it.

“Al-Shabaab is on the back foot,” claimed Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the AU 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.

On Wednesday the top UN humanitarian official for Somalia, Mark Bowden, called on AU and Somali troops to minimise the impact of the fighting on civilians. He was concerned that prolonged fighting could lead to the displacement of settlements where victims of last year’s famine now lived.

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 normalisation 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.” – Sapa-AP