Two civilians were killed in the capital Mogadishu where Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces and Islamist insurgents pounded each other with heavy artillery, forcing many residents to flee, they said.

“Both sides armed with hand grenades and machine guns are fighting and there are several explosions,” said Nur Ali, a resident of Bakara market.

“The fighting has killed two people and wounded many, but we do not know the exact number,” added Ali Mohamed of the neighbouring Hodan area.

Four others, including a policeman, were killed in northern port of Bosaso when police in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland clashed with members of a clan militia suspected of links with extremist groups.

“So far we killed three insurgents, wounded eight others and lost one policeman and four were wounded,” said a Puntland police commander who requested to remain unnamed.

Puntland police chief Abdulaziz Gacamey said fighting erupted when police ambushed about 30 fighters from the Warsengele sub-clan who had camped in Bosaso township in a bid to free three people arrested last week for smuggling arms into the country.

Gacamey said the attackers had ties with a group of Islamist fighters who survived the June shelling of the Puntland mountainous areas outside the coastal town of Bargal by a United States Navy destroyer that left several dead.

“These are the remnants of the Bargal group that has strong links with extremists,” Gacamey told AFP.

“We appeal to the public to give us information on the whereabouts of the others who fled,” he added.

The Puntland fighting flared overnight until about 5:00 am (0300 GMT) until it ended with the capture of eight insurgents, who are currently being questioned.

Puntland officials said they believed the smuggled arms — mortars, grenades and rifles — were headed for the Somali capital Mogadishu, where the government is battling Islamist-led insurgents.

Somali watchers say smuggling of arms has fuelled the conflict in the impoverished African nation, home to about 10 million people.

Islamist militants, ousted from Mogadishu and other strongholds early this year by Ethiopia-backed government forces, have been carrying out near-daily attacks mainly in Mogadishu, leaving a trail of fatalities.

Somalia has been devastated by a civil war since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre touched off a bloody power struggle that has defied numerous peace initiatives.

In addition, widespread insecurity has choked delivery of humanitarian supplies mainly in Mogadishu, where the recent detention of a World Food Programme official prompted the UN to halt its operations.

Somali and Ethiopian troops as well as African Union peacekeepers have failed to stem the insurgency and protect delivery of humanitarian supplies across the city and its outskirts.