Dozens of people have been killed in Somalia after efforts to mediate peace between the warring factions failed as Islamist militia and troops of the interim government continue to pound each other around Idale town, 70 km southwest of Baidoa.
Engulfed with fear, thousands of Somali residents have taken to their heels.
Aid agencies said Saturday dozens of civilians have been killed, at least 200 wounded, and many more have been driven from their homes as fighting continues around the southern Somali town of Baidoa.
"We are very concerned about the plight of civilians who might get caught up in the fighting," said Pascal Hundt, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement on Saturday.
"We call on all parties involved in the clashes to spare and protect civilians and to take every precaution when conducting military operations," Hundt added as officials of the interim government confirmed that although their troops have gained upper hand over the Islamists, they lost six soldiers in the heavy battle.
Islamists countered that they were winning the war at all levels. A countdown between the Islamists based in Mogadishu and the Baidoa-based interim government therefore seems to be in the making.
"Our forces in Idale area have killed dozens of Islamists and are making advance towards Dinsor town to clear all the terrorists from the country," Salad Ali Jelle, the Deputy Defense Minister of Baidoa government said late Friday.
He further accused the Islamic militia of being tasty for war, but claimed it was at the brink of collapse.
Jelle said his government troops had killed 700 of the Islamic fighters, who were now "trapped" in Dinsor town, 130 kilometers southwest of Baidoa.
Hospitals in Dinsor were said to be flooded with dozens of Islamist fighters. Daynunay is the government's forward military base about 20 km southeast of Baidoa.
The other front, Idaale, is 70 km southwest of Baidoa, a southern agricultural trading post which is the only town the government controls.
But in a statement, the ICRC urged the parties in the conflict to take all necessary measures to ensure that the wounded and captured fighters are protected and receive treatment, and that medical staff, hospitals and clinics are spared from attacks.
Fighting began five days ago between forces of the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) and those of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The SCIC accuses Ethiopia of sending troops into Somalia to support the weak but internationally recognized transitional government. Ethiopia denies the accusation, but admits it has military trainers in Baidoa.
Instead, it says Eritrea ferries weapons to the SCIC, a claim denied by Eritrea .
The head of the Information Department of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheik Mudey, said late Friday that unless the Baidoa-allied Ethiopian troops quit Somalia , Islamists would not accept any cease fire. He said the Islamist militias killed over 200 Ethiopian soldiers, whose bodies would be on display for reporters. The ICRC call came after three international aid agencies operating in south-central Somalia appealed to the warring sides to cease hostilities, allow for unrestricted humanitarian access, and resume peace talks.
CARE, Save the Children-UK and World Vision International on Friday urged the TFG and SCIC to ensure humanitarian access to those who are suffering from the effects of fighting, recent flooding and months of prolonged drought.
The three agencies are among the largest of their kind working in South and Central Somalia and, between them, they provide relief and development support to an estimated 1.5 million people.
"Close to one million people have been seriously affected by a series of multiple natural disasters," Paul Daniels, assistant country director for CARE-Somalia, said.
They warned that the war would compound the effects of recent flooding after months of drought, and "is likely to displace over one million vulnerable people and create a new surge of refugees in neighboring countries", as well as destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.
Graham Davison, the World Vision-Somalia's operations director, said, "We request safe and secure access to enable us to carry out our humanitarian work."
In a separate statement, the United Nations appealed to both sides of the conflict to exercise restraint. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia , Eric Laroche, said that he was extremely disturbed the by the deteriorating situation in the country.
"Engaging in conflict at a time when a significant segment of the population is already struggling for survival is unacceptable, " Laroche said.