Somalis flee capital as fighting escalates

The United Nations refugee agency says it is preparing for a mass flight of people out of Somalia after rumours suggested pro-government forces might launch a major offensive.

8 killed in Mogadishu as militant group launches attack

The United Nations refugee agency says it is preparing for a mass flight of people out of Somalia after rumours suggested pro-government forces might launch a major offensive.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency is stepping up preparations in Kenya and other East African countries in expectation of increased movement in the war-torn country.

Witnesses in Somalia on Friday said at least eight people, including a six-year-old child, were killed Friday as mortars pounded Mogadishu during an attack on government soldiers by an extremist Islamic group.

Hundreds of al-Shabab fighters launched the early morning attack on newly trained soldiers, according to Col. Aden Ibrahim Kalmoy, a military spokesman.

Civilians began streaming out of Mogadishu once the attack began, thinking it was the beginning of the government's offensive against al-Shabab, which occupies parts of the city.

"I have been trying to stay but I always live in shock and fear whenever I hear fighting I think the major government offensive has begun," said Halima Ahmed, a mother with seven children, who was leaving the city.

"We cannot live in constant fear and worry," Ahmed said.

Over 250 civiilians killed in January: UN

Somalia's UN-backed government has little influence beyond the capital, leaving much of the country under the control of rival militant groups.

The UNHCR reported that violence in Somalia has left 258 civilians dead and another 253 wounded in January, the worst month for casualties since August.

Some 72,000 people also fled their homes in January to escape renewed clashes.

The UN agency says close to two million of Somalia's nine million people have been displaced from their homes, either within the country or to neighbouring regions. In 2009, over 120,000 Somalis sought refuge outside the country's borders, mainly in Kenya, Yemen and Ethiopia.

With files from The Associated Press