Fighting resumed on Thursday in Somalia for a second day between fighters loyal to the transitional government and the Islamic courts despite a truce which was secured by an EU envoy.
Officials of the interim government said heavy artillery and mortar fire could be heard close to the base of the interim administration in Baidoa, underlining the difficulties of securing peace in the Horn of Africa nation.
Information Minister Ali Jama said the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) were mobilizing to continue the clashes a day after the EU Commissioner for Development and Aid Louis Michel said he had secured the commitment of both sides to a truce and the resumption of peace talks.
"Mortar fire was still going on at night and nothing has stopped.We are expecting new attacks during the day from both fronts. They are mobilizing and these people are showing signs of their readiness to fight," Jama reportedly said.
Witnesses near the frontlines reported seeing hundreds of families fleeing the escalating violence in parts of Bay region, as both sides exchanged heavy fire including mortar fire, heightening fears that Somalia is inching toward a civil war.
Sources said the fighting was the heaviest around Idaale village, 70 km south of Baidoa, and around the outskirts of Deynunay government military camp on the main road linking Baidoa to Buurhakaba.
The UN-backed government said it had killed hundreds of Islamist fighters but the Islamists also claimed to have gained the upper hand.
EU envoy Michel flew to Somalia on Wednesday to meet separately with leaders from the SCIC and the transitional government, urging them to participate in a fourth round of peace talks, which are being mediated by the Arab League in Khartoum.
The envoy later held a news conference in Nairobi on Wednesday night where he announced that both sides agreed to pursue mediation rather than war.
"Both parties have reiterated their commitment to the Khartoum process and to a political solution to the Somalia crisis," he said in Nairobi.
"I am very happy the Islamic courts have accepted to engage in political dialogues with the transitional government. They have both decided to resume the Khartoum dialogue process unconditionally. For me this is very significant," Michel added.
Regional analysts said with both sides massing weapons and troops in strategic points around southern Somalia in recent weeks, it is unlikely they will attend the next round of the Arab League mediated peace talks.
Somalia has been lacking an effective administration since the 1991 ouster of former ruler Mohamed Siad Barre.