WITH the backing of Ethiopian forces and American intelligence, government forces have quickly recaptured all of central and southern Somalia's towns, including the capital, Mogadishu. Now the important questions are how many of the defeated Islamists have gone to ground, where they are and what their aims are. Some of their harsher commanders are at large but their support seems, for the moment, to have shrunk. The Americans admit that the three top al-Qaeda men they at first thought they had killed in air strikes last week are still alive, but no one seems to know where they are lurking.
By refusing to negotiate even with the more moderate Islamists, Somalia's newly triumphant government may alienate many Somalis and drive militants who are in hiding back into the arms of al-Qaeda, which previously had very little direct support. Transitional-government ministers sound sour about their lack of popularity in many parts of Mogadishu; but they will have to be more conciliatory if they are to have a chance of governing effectively.
Nonetheless, the transitional government is in a brazen mood. It briefly shut down Mogadishu radio stations for reporting attacks made against Ethiopian troops in the city. The transitional president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has stirred controversy by declaring that Somaliland, the rather well-run northern bit of Somalia that has kept out of the war, will stay part of Somalia forever. This angers most Somalilanders, who in effect seceded from the rest of the country in 1991. However, Mr Yusuf, once the leader of neighbouring Puntland, another semi-autonomous chunk of land to the north-east, may be preparing for an agreement whereby Somaliland would give up disputed bits of its territory in return for independence.
Progress towards replacing Ethiopian troops with peacekeepers under the aegis of the African Union has been patchy, though vital for the transitional government's credibility. The Ethiopians have said that they will leave “within weeks”. Somalia's transitional prime minister, Mohamed Gedi, says he expects troops from Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda to be on the ground by the end of the month, but that is news to many of them. Nigeria and Senegal have yet to agree to help out; South Africa says it is weighing its options. Yet unless the Ethiopians leave and peacekeepers come in soon, the government's honeymoon could end pretty fast. It is a sad measure of the insouciance with which the world treats Somalia that it has managed to drop out of the headlines in the space of a week.
Courtesy of: The Economist