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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 14:26 GMT
Somali town on the brink of war
Somalia's embattled interim government has been fending off a fierce advance by Islamist militiamen. The BBC's Adam Mynott meets both sides in the conflict and finds efforts to stop the fighting have had little effect.

It's a short drive from the dirt airstrip at Baidoa into the town. There are four checkpoints on the way in manned by Somali soldiers, some wearing uniform, all with AK47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

Government soldiers in Baidoa
Baidoa is a town on edge as the Islamist militia gathers at its gates

Our driver said we were going to the president's compound where Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, was meeting senior figures in Somalia's weak transitional government.

We were inspected closely and waved through. Every few minutes a "technical" - a pick-up truck with a machine gun mounted on the back - would roar past with young armed men clinging onto the back.

This town is the last main refuge of the interim government and it has the feel of a place living on the brink of war.

At the best of times, Baidoa bristles with weapons. Now there are guns absolutely everywhere.

We were given a customary warm and hospitable Somali welcome by members of the government - tea, cold drinks and hot food.

The Information Minister, Ali Ahmed Jama, one of the cornerstones of the transitional government, told me people in the town were very scared.

"The Islamic courts say they want peace," he told me, "but they are attacking us just a short distance from town."

Louis Michel spoke for three hours with politicians and officials seeking a way to stop all-out war.

He then set off to speak to the other side in the dispute, the Union of Islamic Courts, which has taken control of much of central and southern Somalia from its base in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Intensifying fighting

The contrast between Mogadishu and Baidoa could not have been more stark.

Mogadishu, which for 15 years has been racked by fighting between rival warlords, is a transformed place.

Louis Michel's convoy tore through the pot-holed streets which were bustling with people shopping, catching buses and going about their daily lives.

Our 20-minute journey by car encountered not one checkpoint and there was not a gun to be seen.

Under the control of the Islamic courts, peace has been brought to the city and trade has been picking up and the port and airport have re-opened.

However, the Islamic courts have used force to extend their authority through much of central and southern Somalia.

They say they are simply fulfilling the wishes of the Somali people.

Both the transitional government and the Islamic courts gave an undertaking that they would stop fighting and get back to negotiating peace.

But the spoken words and the memorandum of understanding they signed have not been borne out by deeds.

Fighting between the two sides has been intensifying near to the base of the transitional administration in Baidoa.


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