Residents feared further deaths as the most ferocious fighting in Mogadishu since the Islamists routed the commanders from the capital a month ago entered its second day on Monday.

"I am sure that more than 60 have died so far," Abdikadir Sheikh, a medical official at Mogadishu's Madina hospital, said by phone as artillery and gunfire sounded in the background.

Residents of Mogadishu's Kilometre Five area said the toll had risen by at least 40 and nearly 100 had been wounded since heavy street battles broke out at dawn on Sunday in the neighbouring Kilometre Four area.

Hospital cut off

Witnesses said artillery and mortar shells were raining down on Kilometre Five after the battle broke out on Monday afternoon, following a morning lull, and cut many victims off from Madina hospital.

"The hospital is under very heavy mortar and artillery attack and stray bullets are hitting. Chaos is everywhere in the hospital and staff are running away," Sheikh said.

A Kilometre Five resident who refused to give his name said the number of dead would exceed 60 "because so many of the injured cannot go to the nearest hospital".

Fighters in a 'technical' - a pickup
mounted with a machine gun

Residents said the streets were empty as militiamen traded automatic weapons fire, and "technicals" - pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons that are Somalia's version of tanks - had their guns blazing.

Battles broke out on Sunday when the Islamists set a daybreak ambush in Kilometre Four for fighters loyal to Hussein Aideed, the interior minister in the interim government, and another militia commander, Abdi Qaidid.

The Islamists have taken control of most of the coastal capital and a key swath of Somalia, posing a serious threat to the interim government - which is too weak to enter Mogadishu and is now based in the south-central town of Baidoa.

The Islamists want to impose sharia law across the country and oppose the deployment of foreign peacekeepers, which Abdullahi Yusuf, the interim president, says is essential to get his government on its feet and pacify the Horn of Africa country.