But with Islamist insurgents knocking on the door of the capital Mogadishu, and the government declaring itself on the verge of collapse, here are answers to some questions on why Somalia's troubles matter well beyond its borders:
WHAT'S THE LATEST?
- Islamists have been gaining territory all year and last week took the port of Merka and the town of Elasha, bringing them to within 15 km (9 miles) of Mogadishu.
- President Abdullahi Yusuf has admitted the insurgents now control most of the south, with the exception of the coastal capital and the provincial seat of parliament, Baidoa, where they still, however, carry out attacks. "The Islamists kill city cleaners, they will not spare legislators," he said from Kenya.
- The Islamists are hampered by internal divisions, and deterred by the presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu and Baidoa. But the most militant among them are said to be considering options for an assault on the capital.
WHAT IF THE ISLAMISTS TAKE MOGADISHU?
- Seizure of the capital could be the death-knell for Yusuf's Western-backed government, which exists more in name than in terms of any control on the ground.
- If moderates take the lead, there could be some sort of power-sharing government between secular and Islamist leaders. But if groups like the militant al Shabaab take prominence, they want to implement Islamic sharia law. Washington fears that could make Somalia a haven for al Qaeda-linked extremists.
- Secular and pro-Western neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya would both be extremely worried by an Islamist-run state next door. Last time the Islamists ruled Mogadishu -- for six months in 2006 -- Ethiopia invaded. Kenya helped catch fleeing Islamist fighters after they were toppled by that intervention in a nation whose population is traditionally moderate Muslim.
WHO IS SUFFERING?
- Already living in one of the dryest and poorest nations on earth, Somalis have suffered appallingly from the violence which has compounded the effect of drought and soaring food prices.
- About one million of Somalia's estimated 9 million people live as internal refugees. Several million lack basic food. Attacks on foreign and local aid workers, including assassinations and kidnaps, have hampered the ability to help.
- The Islamist-led insurgency of the last two years has killed about 10,000 civilians and many fighters on both sides.
- Hundreds of would-be refugees die each year trying to cross the shark-infested Gulf of Aden to Yemen.
- A small elite of Somali businessmen, many with dual nationalities and homes abroad, have benefited from Somalia's anarchy, making millions from businesses such as importing food and fuel, or setting up mobile phone services. Plenty of unscrupulous characters have also prospered from shady dealings like arms imports and illegal fishing off the coast.
WHAT INVESTOR INTEREST IS THERE IN SOMALIA?
- Other than foreign-based Somalis, there is little interest in the country at the moment due to its chaotic state. But those who have looked closely know that long-term Somalia has plenty of prospects, particularly for oil, tourism along its long coast-line, agriculture, and trade due to a strategic position.
- Somalia has no proven oil reserves, but one survey 16 years ago ranked it second only to Sudan as the top prospective producer temptingly placed in an oil window over the Gulf of Aden. Various foreign companies have been trying to strike exploration deals in the north, including in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, though insecurity is hampering progress.
- Should peace ever come to Somalia, there will probably be huge international funds available for reconstruction projects.
- Chaos onshore has spawned a wave of piracy off Somalia which came to international prominence this year when a rise in insurance premiums shocked the industry and the capture of one boat with 33 tanks on board drew world media attention.
- The NATO alliance and the European Union have scrambled to provide patrols in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean waterways off Somalia. The United States and France, which have bases nearby, are also helping, while Russia has sent a warship too.
- If the patrols do not stem piracy, shipping firms may opt to send freight around South Africa rather than through the Suez Canal, which could drive up the cost of manufactured goods and fuel for consumers in Asia and Europe.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE REGION?
- With Ethiopia backing the Somali government and Eritrea favouring the Islamists by hosting some of their leaders and also accused of providing material support, the conflict has fuelled the long-running Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict.
- The failure of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force of 3,000 men to stem the violence has made the continental body look impotent, particularly as it was unable to muster a hoped-for 8,000 soldiers. The United Nations is resisting calls to replace the AU in Somalia, no doubt mindful of its disastrous intervention in Somalia during the 1990s.
- Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are nervous of militant attacks on their soil, after various past bombings round the region that were planned from Somalia.
- Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wants to pull his troops out of Somalia, but faces a Catch 22 if he does not want to leave the government at the mercy of the Islamists.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by David Clarke)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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