The Somali transitional government has urged civilians who fled fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, to return home, saying the violence has ended.
"This [fighting] is over," Madobe Nuunow Muhammad, the Minister of Information, said. "Major operations are over and government forces are engaged in mop-up operations. We are now calling on the people to return to their homes."
To facilitate returns, he added, the government had set up a special committee to resettle the displaced, but did not give details of how it would operate.
After nine days of continuous heavy fighting, Mogadishu was quiet on Friday, although there were reports of looting and some shots fired. A civil society source said civilians were still fearful that the fighting was far from over. "We are waiting for the new phase," he added.
Madobe's appeal followed a declaration on Thursday by Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi that a nine-day offensive to end resistance by a group of Islamist fighters, foreign jihadists and clansmen had achieved positive gains.
But the same day a mortar shell hit the SOS Children’s Hospital. "We deplore the indiscriminate shelling of a medical facility," said the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, representative in Somalia, Christian Balslev-Olesen.
According to aid agencies, an estimated 340,000 people have fled fighting in Mogadishu between Ethiopian-backed government forces and insurgents since February. Many children have been hit in indiscriminate shooting and shelling while displacement has forced women searching for food, water and shelter to leave their children unattended.
"There have been reports of attacks by bandits and upon arrival in communities, the displaced are overwhelming the existing social services," UNICEF said. "Acute watery diarrhoea is a growing concern as public sanitation systems are strained. Further health risks continue in Mogadishu, where insecurity in some areas has hindered collection of dead and decomposing bodies."
Despite the violence, some agencies have ventured into the field. On Friday, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said with its partners it had distributed relief supplies in Afgoye, 30km west of Mogadishu, targeting 35,000 displaced people.
Its staff, however, said civilians were still fleeing Mogadishu at a very high rate, turning the capital slowly into a ghost town with half the neighbourhoods deserted.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the world to step up assistance to the war-torn country.
"The international community should fully cooperate and make concerted efforts to restore peace and security in that country," Ban said. "I am also very much troubled by the fact that the Transitional Federal Government [TFG] is not able to sustain the momentum thus created politically."
He called for plans to convene a National Reconciliation Congress, which have been postponed until next month, to be realised. The conference had initially been scheduled for mid-April.
Fighting in Somalia flared up after the TFG, backed by Ethiopian forces, dislodged the Union of Islamic Courts from the capital and much of the country last December.