Talks aimed at averting all-out war between Somalia's powerful Islamists and weak government collapsed late on Wednesday, 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 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 girded 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 told reporters 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 yesterday.
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."
It was signed by representatives from the African Union, the Arab League, the EU, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the UN and the east African regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
Several nations -- Britain, Egypt, Italy, Kenya, Norway, Sudan, Sweden and Yemen -- some of whom are members of the US-inspired International Contact Group on Somalia, also signed.
All fear a full-scale war that could embroil the Horn of Africa region in conflict, drawing in arch-foe neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea, who are accused of backing the rival Somali factions.