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Strolling on the Malibu beach at sunset on Jan. 28, Halle Berry and her boyfriend Olivier Martinez found a cozy way to ward off the evening chill. "Olivier snuggled Halle close to him so she would stay warm," says an observer. "They looked very in love and happy together." The actress' 2½-year-old daughter Nahla, meanwhile, was spending time with her main man, Berry's ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry. For Berry, who smiled and laughed as she walked with Martinez, it appeared to be a carefree evening. Says the observer: "She seemed very relaxed."

Things might have looked serene, but a nasty storm was brewing on the horizon. Just three days later, Berry, 44, abruptly pulled out of the upcoming film -New Year's Eve-which she had been set to start shooting in New York City within the week-in anticipation of a looming custody battle. In a bluntly worded statement to PEOPLE from Berry's rep, the actress took direct aim at Aubry, 35: "Halle has serious concerns for her daughter's well-being while in the care of her father for any extended period of time and is prepared to take all necessary steps to protect her." Berry, her rep stated, has attempted to resolve custody issues with Aubry "amicably...but given his lack of cooperation, Halle has no choice but to seek swift judicial intervention." Aubry's agent and lawyers didn't respond to multiple requests for comment, but friends of the French-Canadian model expressed shock at Berry's allegation that Nahla would need protection from her father. "He is honestly the best dad ever," says one Aubry source. "I never saw someone more dedicated to their child."

The exes, who split last April after four years of dating, were for a while so friendly that Aubry traveled with Berry and Nahla to South Africa last summer while she filmed the thriller Dark Tide. But in recent weeks, a rift widened-and on Dec. 30, Aubry filed court papers seeking to be formally recognized as Nahla's father and to secure joint legal and physical custody of their daughter. According to a source, the move upset Berry, who had had an informal custody-sharing arrangement with Aubry. "The only reason Gabriel is seeing Nahla right now is because the court hasn't made a decision yet," says a source close to the Oscar-winning actress. "If it were up to Halle, he wouldn't be seeing her at all without some sort of supervision."

Now the mud-slinging is getting intense. Some close to Berry accuse Aubry of having a dark side: "Once they broke up, he became verbally threatening to Halle," says Aubry's former friend and business partner Stephane Bibeau, a New York City restaurateur who remains close with Berry. Bibeau and other sources close to Berry claim that Aubry used a racial slur against her. "That's just unacceptable," says a source close to the actress. (Aubry's reps did not respond to requests for comment.) Aubry "speaks [first] and thinks later," adds Bibeau, who now owns Manhattan eatery Nuela. "He doesn't realize the strength of his words. He is a vindictive guy."

People close to Aubry question those claims, with some calling Berry the one with anger problems. "She would call screaming on his phone," says a source who spent time with Aubry recently. "Halle likes to be in control and wants to make all the big decisions regarding Nahla without having to ask Gabriel," adds a Martinez pal. "She even went on preschool interviews without consulting Gabriel. They have no contact, and Halle complains and asks Olivier for advice every day."

How could things between the impossibly good-looking couple get so ugly so fast? Friends cite their post-split romances as a source of tension. When Aubry briefly stepped out with reality star Kim Kardashian, 30, last fall, "Halle was very upset," says a source close to Berry. "She did not want a reality star in Nahla's life. She was very aggravated." Meanwhile Berry's romance with French actor Martinez, 45, whom she began dating last summer, has also sparked friction. Aubry, who was living in Berry's Beverly Hills home as recently as September, "liked their arrangement before Olivier came into the picture," says a source. "Nahla was their focus, and they worked together. All of a sudden, things became a lot more complicated."

For Berry the current drama is just the latest relationship that has ended explosively (see box, right). Previously married to former baseball pro David Justice, 44, and musician Eric Benet, 44, Berry wasn't looking for love when she met Aubry on a Versace photo shoot in 2005. But the pair quickly hit it off. Two years later, an ecstatic Berry announced she was pregnant. "I've waited a long time for this moment in my life," she said of finally becoming a mom.

But even as she reveled in motherhood, sources close to Berry say the actress grew increasingly dismayed at Aubry's relative lack of income compared to her own. "Halle got tired of footing the bill and was sick of him having no ambition," says a Berry source. When the pair split, "from the beginning, Halle kind of had the upper hand because she was essentially supporting all of them for the most part," says a source close to Aubry. "Gabriel never liked how that felt. Their split was tough because they're both so involved in raising Nahla, and neither ever wanted to give that up."

Now, as the custody war rages, each side is claiming to have Nahla's best interests at heart. "Anything he could do for that little girl he did and still does," says an Aubry source. As for Berry, says a friend, "she's a watchdog with Nahla. She sees motherhood as why she was put on this earth."

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan/Los Angeles,
  • Pernilla Cedenheim/Los Angeles,
  • Jennifer Garcia/Los Angeles,
  • Oliver Jones/Los Angeles,
  • Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles,
  • Aili Nahas/Los Angeles.