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Battles erupt in Somali capital
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By Aweys Yusuf and Abdi Sheikh

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MOGADISHU, March 19 (Reuters) - Battles erupted in Somalia's capital on Wednesday between Islamist rebels and Ethiopian troops backing the government a day after the United Nations said it was still too dangerous to send peacekeepers there.

Witnesses in northern Mogadishu said three Ethiopian soldiers and at least one insurgent were killed as both sides traded heavy machinegun fire, grenades and artillery barrages.

"I was hiding in a wrecked building in the area where the fighting took place," Abdullahi Hussein, a resident of the Suq Holana neighbourhood, told Reuters by telephone.

Late on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said insecurity in Somalia made it too dangerous to deploy a U.N. peacekeeping force there until far-reaching political and military conditions were met.

The African Union has called on the world body to send troops to replace a small AU mission and help the country's interim government fend off the Islamist insurgency.

In a major report, Ban said U.N. officials had identified conditions that could lead to such a deployment.

They included a viable political process taking hold with 70 percent of parties agreeing to lay down their arms and work together in a power-sharing deal.

Ethiopian soldiers currently supporting the government would have withdrawn or would be in the process of doing so.

"CONDITIONS NOT IN PLACE"

"A military technical agreement in support of peace would have been signed by the major clans and factions, which would list security arrangements, such as certain ways to achieve disarmament, in respect of heavy weapons as a minimum, and non-violent settlement of disputes," Ban said.

"As detailed in the fact-finding report, these conditions are regrettably not in place."

Ban said international factors including arms proliferation, the potential for a proxy war in Somalia between its neighbours and piracy, worsened an already complicated security issue.

The Security Council will discuss his report on Thursday and diplomats say it will again consider possibly sending U.N. peacekeepers -- a move that is supported by South Africa but which permanent council members Britain and France are wary of.

About 2,600 A.U. troops from Uganda and Burundi have struggled to keep the peace in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, where Islamist rebels have waged an Iraq-style insurgency of assassinations, grenade attacks and roadside bombings.

On Tuesday, the United States said it had formally designated Somalia's al Shabaab militants, thought to be behind much of the violence, as a foreign terrorist organisation.

The group is the militant wing of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council which ruled most of southern Somalia for the second half of 2006 until the interim government and Ethiopian forces routed its leaders in a two-week war. (Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi; Editing by Bryson Hull)

SOURCE: Reuters, March 19, 2008