Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's Western-backed government have quit their main bases in Mogadishu, witnesses said, heralding the start of an uncertain new chapter for the anarchic capital.
Many residents were overjoyed by the departure of soldiers they saw as occupiers, even though some analysts fear it will leave a power vacuum and trigger more violence by Islamist rebels who have been battling the government and each other.
"We were chanting praise be to Allah, who made the troops leave our area," local man Hussein Awale told Reuters as hundreds of people gathered at one military facility in the north of the city that was abandoned overnight.
Insurgents have been fighting the interim government and Ethiopian forces for two years, since Addis Ababa sent soldiers to help drive a sharia courts group out of Mogadishu.
More than 16,000 civilians have been killed and one million have been forced from their homes. But frustrated by rifts in the Somali administration, and the cost of the operation, Ethiopia has decided to withdraw its estimated 3,000 troops.
Ethiopian commanders could not be reached for comment on their latest moves. But an Islamist opposition spokesman said he was told all Ethiopian soldiers would leave the city today.
"Ethiopian troops have left their strategic main bases in Mogadishu and the others will withdraw today," said Suleiman Olad Roble of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia.
The Horn of Africa nation has been mired in civil conflict for the past 18 years.
Some analysts believe the exit of Ethiopian troops could be positive, prompting the more moderate Islamist groups to join a process of forming a more broad, inclusive government.
But there are few signs of a quick end to the bloodshed.
At least 11 civilians were killed in Mogadishu on Monday when artillery shells slammed into the city's crowded Bakara market and nearby residential streets as the insurgents battled government forces and their Ethiopian allies.
There has also been fierce fighting between rival Islamist factions in the central trading town of Gurael.
More than 50 people were killed there in battles at the weekend between gunmen from the hardline al Shabaab group and another Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, witnesses said.
Some Islamist factions appear to be turning on al Shabaab, which wants to impose a strict version of sharia law shunned by traditionally moderate Somalis. The United States has formally listed it as a terrorist organisation with links to al Qaeda.
In a Reuters interview on Saturday, Somalia's interim President Sheikh Aden Madobe said al Shabaab posed the biggest threat to the country and that his government needed help.
Madobe, who was parliament speaker and became interim president when Abdullahi Yusuf quit last month, said Somalia needed money to build up its security forces.
The African Union (AU) has also been desperately trying to strengthen a small peacekeeping mission of 3,500 troops from Uganda and Burundi. But despite pledges of extra battalions from those two nations and Nigeria, they have yet to deploy.Reuse content