Somali government troops marched into the country's capital, Mogadishu, last night as the Islamic militias that have controlled the city and much of southern Somalia fled in disarray.
"We are in Mogadishu," declared Mohamed Ali Gedi, the head of the weak transitional government of Somalia that had previously failed to even reach the capital and been forced to set up further west in Baidoa.
The real power behind the sudden shift, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said his soldiers would ensure Mogadishu does not descend into chaos.
"We will not let Mogadishu burn," said Mr Meles who claimed the fighting could be over "in days, if not a few weeks".
But diplomats and analysts warned that the battle-scarred capital, once described as the most dangerous city in the world, could yet again descend into chaos when rival warlords fight to reclaim their territory.
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) claimed their retreat from Mogadishu was intended to avoid bloodshed in the capital city. Approximately 3,000 fighters were believed to be heading towards the southern port of Kismaayo, the Courts' last stronghold. Other UIC fighters were reportedly ditching their uniforms and staying in Mogadishu, intending to blend back into civilian life rather than fight the Ethiopians.
The Islamists' defeat has been astonishingly swift. Just 10 days ago, their troops sought to march on Baidoa, the town 130 miles west of Mogadishu where the government is based. It was that threat which prompted neighbouring Ethiopia to officially enter the conflict, launching air strikes and ground assaults against UIC strongholds.
The Islamists' military defeat has also damaged them politically. Matt Brydon, an independent Somalia analyst based in Nairobi, said that the Courts - who rose to prominence in June when they drove US-backed warlords out of Mogadishu - had, in effect, "dissolved themselves".
"The military defeat seems to have translated into a withdrawal of support from the Hawiye clan," he said. The Hawiye is one of Mogadishu's most influential clans and the Courts owed much of their sudden rise to prominence to the support they received from Hawiye businessmen and clan elders frustrated by fighting between rival warlords.
Mr Brydon said: "When the Hawiye turned against them, the Courts had no choice. They had to hand over the weapons and trucks to the clan and leave Mogadishu. They have lost a large part of their constituency and are clearly in disarray."
In the 15 years since Somalia last had an effective central government, rival clan-based warlords regularly fought for control of sections of the capital.
Checkpoints manned by armed militia were present at every major junction and groups of heavily armed men drove around Mogadishu in souped up 4x4s fitted with anti-aircraft missiles known as "technicals".
When the Islamic Courts drove the warlords out of Mogadishu in June, residents soon reported an improvement in law and order. Most checkpoints disappeared and technicals became a less common sight.
One Western diplomat warned last night that the security situation in Mogadishu had already deteriorated. "There are reports of checkpoints springing up around the capital and 'technicals' roaming the city. Rival clans are now fighting for control of their former territories. We don't know yet how this is going to shake down. Are we looking at the same old, same old?"
In Mogadishu, Mohamed Jama Furuh, a former warlord and current member of parliament, reclaimed control of the capital's seaport which his militia had controlled before the Islamic Courts took over. The airport and the old presidential palace were also taken by clan militiamen.
Some fear the Islamic Courts are preparing for a defiant last stand in Kismaayo, followed by a series of guerilla attacks in territory held by the Ethiopians and the transitional government.Reuse content