20/12/06 (B374) BBC : Heavy fighting erupts in Somalia.

fighting has broken out close to the base of the weak Somali interim government
in Baidoa.

A deadline
from Islamists for Ethiopia to withdraw troops from Somalia or face "major
attacks" expired on Tuesday.

say pro-government forces and the Islamic militia exchanged mortar fire at
Daynunay, 20km from Baidoa.

Both sides
promised a visiting European Union envoy they would resume talks, but there
are fears the conflict will plunge the entire region into crisis.

On a last
ditch peace mission, the EU’s development commissioner, Louis Michel, met
government officals in Baidoa before travelling on to the capital, Mogadishu,
and holding talks with Union of Islamic Court (UIC) leaders.

He told
the BBC that they were faced with a very serious problem.

knows that we are not very far from an open, violent conflict with… war,"
he said.

Both sides
blamed each other for the fighting.


commander Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal told AFP news agency: "I can confirm
to you that heavy fighting has already started around several front line areas."

Government commander Ibrahim Batari accused the Islamists of mounting the
attack. "There is shelling everywhere… our forces are facing Islamists,
hell is going on," he said.

militias have attacked us and the fighting is continuing

can hear sounds of bullets, rockets from the side where the defence lines
of the Islamic courts and the government are," a resident in the government’s
military base in Daynunay, southeast of Baidoa, told Reuters news agency.

Islamist spokesman Abdirahin
Ali Mudey says the base is now in UIC hands, which residents talking to the
BBC confirm.

Meanwhile, clashes have
broken out in Moode Moode – a village off the Daynunay-Burhakaba road.

"Islamic militias
have attacked us and the fighting is continuing," the government’s deputy
defence minister, Salad Ali Jelle, told Associated Press news agency about
the Moode Moode fighting.

There is also heavy fighting
and at least one death being reported near Idale, some 60km (37 miles) south
Baidoa, after skirmishes on Tuesday evening.

"Last evening, a
reconnaissance team from the government and the Islamic courts clashed [in
Idale]," Mr Jelle told Reuters on Wednesday.

"But this morning,
ground troops from both sides exchanged mortars from a distance."
‘Nervous troops’

In Baidoa, Mr Michel spoke
to senior government figures pressing the need for negotiations to start between
the two sides.

We don’t have troops in
Somalia, but as we have said so many times, we have a limited number of military

The Islamists have refused
to negotiate with the transitional government until Ethiopian troops leave

Ethiopian Information
Minister Birhan Hailu told the BBC on Tuesday that his country was always
ready for dialogue, but said the Islamists were not willing to talk with the
transitional government.

"We don’t have troops
in Somalia, but as we have said so many times, we have a limited number of
military advisers to support the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.

But the BBC’s Adam Mynott
says that as he drove to the airport in Baidoa, he was stopped by a huge convoy
of Ethiopian military armour.

There were about 10 large
artillery cannons, several vehicles – clearly marked with Ethiopian insignia
– loaded with ammunition and many hundreds of soldiers.
He was detained for about an hour by Ethiopian soldiers who appeared on edge
and very nervous. Mr Michel’s car was not stopped.

The UIC has introduced
law and order to the capital and much of southern Somalia for the first time
in 15 years and denies links to al-Qaeda.