Talks aimed at averting all-out war between Somalia's powerful Islamists and weak government collapsed here, heightening fears of conflict that could engulf the whole region.
After an intense last-ditch intervention by diplomats to convince the government to accept a formal delay in negotiations proposed by the Islamists, mediators said last night that the talks had been placed on indefinite hold.
"It was commonly established and agreed that there is a need for further consultation on both substantive and procedural issues to move the dialogue forward," they said in a joint statement, urging restraint on both sides.
"The Somali parties are urged to exercise full restraint and to commit themselves to their previous agreements reached in Khartoum," it said, referring to two oft-violated earlier accords.
However, as the two sides geared for battle near the government seat of Baidoa, firing into the air in shows of strength, sources close to the interim administration's delegation said it had rejected a delay.
"We have not agreed to any postponement," one source said at the talks venue in the Sudanese capital on condition of anonymity.
Despite the mediators' claim that "further consultation" had been "commonly" agreed, the head of the government delegation team declined to comment on the statement and said he would issue a response on Thursday.
The statement said mediators and international observers "commit themselves to assisting the Somali parties in sustaining their talks in Khartoum as soon as possible upon consultation with all the parties.