Somali Islamists fled overnight from their final stronghold round the southern port of Kismayu in what could be the end of a nearly two-week war with the Ethiopian-backed government, residents said on Monday.
Several thousand Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) fighters had made a last stand north of Kismayu port, but melted away after advancing Ethiopian and government troops shelled them with mortars and rockets at their frontline in Jilib.
"They've all gone. There's a lot of confusion in the town, no one's in control," Kismayu resident Bile Ali told Reuters.
It was not clear where the leaders and fighters of the SICC — who had their backs to the Indian Ocean and the Kenyan border after being chased from Mogadishu on Thursday — had gone.
But one Jilib resident said he believed they were moving further south to the hilly region of Buur Gaabo, just inside Somalia from the border with Kenya. "If they go there, it will be very hard for the Ethiopians to get them," he said.
Kenya has beefed up its border, though it is long and porous. And US boats were believed by diplomats to be patrolling the sea off Somalia to prevent SICC leaders, or foreign militant supporters, escaping.
Some Islamist fighters may simply have dumped their uniforms and melted away into the Somali bush, analysts speculated.
"Once we know where they have gone in Somalia, they will be followed, because they are in the company of foreign fighters," Somali Information Minister Ali Jama Jangali said.
The retreat of the Islamists caps a remarkable advance by the Ethiopian-government force.
Just two weeks ago, the Islamists had appeared on the verge of routing the government which had no control beyond its base in the provincial trading town of Baidoa.
But the intervention of Ethiopia — the Horn of Africa's military power — reversed the situation, with air strikes and heavy bombardment on land pushing the Islamists first back to Mogadishu then south to Kismayu.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, are believed to have died.
Shells then silence
Witnesses at Jilib, north of Kismayu, said mortar and rocket firing between the two sides stopped late on Sunday.
"Fighting stopped at around 10 pm (1900 GMT)," said a resident, who asked not to be named. "Then there was a big silence. Then the Islamic Courts just left."
While Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Somali government leaders President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi will be delighted with the Islamists' flight, analysts warn the conflict may be far from over.
The Islamists, who had swelled their ranks with foreign fighters, may now concentrate on Iraq-style guerrilla tactics against a government they see as illegitimate and propped up by a hated and traditionally Christian foreign power.
Islamist fighter numbers were believed to number about 3,000. Ethiopia says it has 4,000 troops in Somalia, though many believe that number could be far higher.
Somalia's government has not given troop numbers, but is thought by experts to have several thousand.
Born out of sharia courts operating in Mogadishu, the Islamists threw U.S.-backed warlords out of the capital in June.
They brought order to Mogadishu for the first time since 1991 when warlords ousted a dictator. But some of their hardline practices — like closing cinemas and holding public executions — angered Somalis, who are traditionally moderate Muslims.
Both Addis Ababa and Washington say the SICC is a dangerous Taliban-like movement linked to al Qaeda, an accusation the movement says was trumped up to justify foreign intervention.
Government leaders Yusuf and Gedi face a monumental task to tame a nation US forces left more than a decade ago after an ill-fated intervention captured in the film "Black Hawk Down".
Analysts say it is hard to see how they can establish authority and pacify Somalia without the military presence of Ethiopia, which has vowed to leave as soon as it can.But Somalis may resent the presence of Ethiopia, their traditional enemy.
The government also has the threat of re-emerging warlords, and the possibility of guerrilla attacks by the Islamists, to contend with. "Sadly, it will still be a long, long time before we see peace in Somalia," a Horn of Africa expert said.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, in his New Year's message, called for an urgent summit of the east African regional body IGAD to discuss the Somali situation.
IGAD has plans to deploy peacekeepers in Somalia.