MOGADISHU, Somalia, May 25 (UPI) -- Islamist al-Shebab militiamen have seized several districts of war-battered Mogadishu and shelled the Somali presidential palace in an offensive apparently intended to thwart a long-delayed big push by the U.S.-backed government.
The gains made by the Islamists, who are aligned with al-Qaida, are a severe setback for Somalia's fragile Transitional Federal Government and for Washington's hopes of curbing the jihadists in the Horn of Africa.
The TFG was installed in Mogadishu by the military forces of neighboring Ethiopia with U.S. support in December 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist coalition, was ousted after a short-lived period in power.
The TFG is barely functioning and even before the Islamists' advance over the last few days only controlled a section of the coastal city around the presidential seat, the airport and the harbor.
In New York, Ismail Omar Guelleh, president of Djibouti, a former French colony that is Somalia's northern neighbor, warned Thursday that the TFG may not survive the escalating conflict with the Islamist insurgents.
"I cannot see how we can avert the possibility of Somalia's plunge into an avoidable disintegration," he told the U.N. Security Council.
He called on it to take action to save Mogadishu and its 2 million inhabitants because the TFG is "fast shrinking" under the Islamists' offensive and has become "irrelevant and inconsequential."
Al-Shebab forces have been pushing forward across northern parts of Mogadishu for several days. On Friday they took positions about 500 yards from the presidential palace and shelled the compound.
The airport, seaport and other TFG installations were also hit. At one point, the building where members of the country's parliament were gathered came under insurgent fire.
At least 15 people were killed and 30 wounded in fighting Sunday but the overall casualty toll for the last week is believed to be much higher.
Some 21,000 people, mostly civilians caught in the cross fire, have perished since early 2007, with another 1.5 million driven from their homes.
"We have driven out the government from the north of Mogadishu," Sheik Ali Mohammed Rage, al-Shebab's spokesman, declared Monday. "Now our next step is to capture the palace."
The president, Sheik Ahmed Sharif, wasn't in the palace when it was shelled. He has been attending a U.N.-sponsored conference in Istanbul aimed at garnering support for his failed state.
He has faced dissent within his government in recent weeks and in his absence the TFG appeared to be splintering amid the jihadist offensive.
The defense minister, Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siyade Indhaade, accused the prime minister, Omar Abdirshid, of being responsible for the TFG's failure to stand up to the al-Shebab insurgents.
Indhaade said TFG forces had to fall back from positions in the Bonheere and Maanaboliyo districts of Mogadishu "because the prime minister refused to give them enough arms to fight the militants."
He claimed earlier that the insurgents were using 4,000 small arms and ammunition that officials at the prime minister's office had sold to al-Shebab.
"The president is now traveling abroad and the prime minister is working to destroy the government forces," Indhaade said. "I don't know why he's doing this."
A few weeks ago, hundreds of troops from the TFG's poorly trained and poorly led army defected to the insurgents with their weapons because they hadn't been paid for months.
Their commanders and officials in the corruption-riddled government had presumably pocketed the funds, largely provided by the Americans.
TFG forces have been supported by some of the 4,000 troops of an African Union peacekeeping force deployed around Mogadishu. But they are barely effective as a fighting force beyond unleashing random artillery barrages on civilian areas when they come under fire.
On Saturday, the Istanbul meeting, led by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, produced pledges of "full support" for the TFG by the 55 nations and 12 international organizations in attendance.
They concluded that "the re-establishment, training, equipping, payment and retention of Somali security forces is vital for long-term stability."
None of this likely to prevent further Islamist advances in Mogadishu or produce an effective TFG military force capable of repulsing, let alone defeating, the insurgent army of 10,000-15,000 well-armed fighters.
Somalia has been in a state of perpetual clan warfare since 1991, when warlords toppled the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.