| GEO World|
| At least 22 killed in Somalia fighting|
| Updated at: 2232 PST, Wednesday, June 17, 2009|
MOGADISHU: Heavy fighting between Islamist rebels and government forces in Somalia's capital on Wednesday killed at least 22 people, including Mogadishu's police chief.
Insurgents with links to al Qaeda stepped up attacks on the government in early May to try and oust President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Fierce clashes have killed nearly 300 people since then.
Western nations, some of Somalia's neighbours and the government fear that if the chaos persists, more foreign fighters coming to wage holy war will be sucked into the Horn of African nation, increasing risks to the region in general.
"We do not have a specific number, but at least 500 fighters are in Mogadishu alone and I think this is a great danger to the entire region," Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said. "Some middle ranking al Qaeda officials came into the country and they want to make a base in Somalia.
"If these guys succeed in taking over Somalia, they will create havoc in the continent," he told Reuters in Nairobi.
The fighting on Wednesday came after government forces attacked rebels in Mogadishu, the latest in a string of offensives to try and dislodge the insurgents from the capital.
Eyewitnesses said a mortar bomb killed eight people in one house alone in Bakara Market, a rebel stronghold. Other residents said there was fierce fighting in the Hodan area.
"From the window of our house I have seen three civilian people who died in the fighting lying in street. I have also seen two dead insurgents on a pick up truck," Hodan resident Hassan Kasim Ali told Reuters.
Mogadishu Police Chief Ali Said was killed in the government attack and people in various parts of the city were struck down by stray bullets.
"The commander died in the fighting this morning when the troops overran the opposition trenches," Abdiqadir Odweyne, a senior police official, told Reuters.
Dead bodies lay in the streets and hospital wards were packed with casualties.
"We have received 50 people injured in today's fighting," Dahir Dhere, deputy director of the Madina hospital in Mogadishu, told Reuters. The hardline al Shabaab group has so far resisted government attempts drive its fighters from the capital and the rebels, along with allied group Hizbul Islam, control most of southern Somalia bordering Kenya and parts of the central region.
Analysts say the fighting in Mogadishu is the worst for years and the chances of any negotiated peace are waning.