|Somali government forces and their 8,000 strong AU backers have taken up positions around the market [AFP]
At least 17 civilians have been killed in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, while caught in the crossfire between government security forces backed by African Union (AU) troops and al-Shabab fighters, officials have said.
"At least 17 civilian dead have been counted so far and nine of them were killed after artillery fire struck a bus station near Arafat hospital," Ali Muse, head of the Mogadishu ambulance service, told the AFP news agency on Thursday.
Forty six other civilians were injured by stray artillery fire in the clashes over control for the city's main market.
Tension has been building around Bakara market, which has long been a stronghold of al-Shabab, for the past 10 days and the vast majority of business owners there moved their wares out several days ago.
The opposition fighters had been digging in trenches inside the market, while government forces and their 8,000 strong AU backers in Mogadishu took up positions around the market.
Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow said the Bakara market is the capital's main commercial hub and represents an important point of control for both sides.
"It is a source of revenue for al-Shabab, who has been cash-strapped for a while now. Shabab have been taxing traders and shopkeepers (in the market)," he said.
"And they (Shabab) have also been using the market to conduct attacks targeting the parliament, the presidential palace, as well as the AU forces' headquarters."
Somali officials confirmed the fighting and said they were advancing onto new positions previously held by the rebel fighters, but declined to give details about the casualties.
"We have beaten the enemy back and our forces are now advancing onto new positions very close to their last stronghold in Bakara. The fighting started last night and is still continuing sporadically around some positions," Yusuf Dhegobadan, Somalia's deputy chief of military staff, told reporters.
"We took control of some key positions this morning and penetrated deep into their big trenches," he added.
Innocent Oula, the chief of staff of the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM), said the government forces and their AMISOM allies were trying to avoid any clashes within the actual market.
"While our joint forces are indeed close to the market, we have left a clear route open to the extremists to withdraw. We urge them to take advantage of this and spare the Somali people any more suffering," Oula said.
"What happens now is in their hands. If they refuse to leave, however, we will be left with no option other than to force them out," he said adding that "any plans to do so will be undertaken with the greatest care to ensure minimal harm and damage to lives and property".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies