Somalia looks to future at UK conference

2012-02-23 09:41

London - World powers meet with Somalia's fragile government in London on Thursday to build on progress in the struggle against Islamist militants, pirates and poverty after two decades of unrest.

The meeting of some 50 nations and organisations, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the UN chief Ban Ki-moon, comes a day after Somalia announced a major victory over the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebels.

But the world will be under pressure to come up with concrete steps for the Horn of Africa nation when the focus is on other troubles, with Syria set to be discussed at meetings on the sidelines of Thursday's conference.

The US is considering a push for sanctions on "spoilers" blocking political progress in Somalia, which could involve officials within the country's transitional government (TFG), a senior State Department official revealed on Wednesday.

"We would contemplate imposing both travel restrictions and visa bans on individuals who serve as spoilers in the political process," the US official told reporters under the condition of anonymity.

Britain said its "primary objective in Somalia is to seek a lasting political solution that will bring peace and security to the country, and reduce threats to the UK".

"With engagement from attendees at the highest level, the conference will agree a series of practical measures to support Somalia," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Opening statements by British Prime Minister David Cameron are due to start around 10:00 GMT and there will be a press conference by the key players around 16:00 GMT.

Series of gains

Other participants at the conference include the European Union, the African Union and the Arab League, as well as the head of the breakaway Somaliland region.

The head of Somalia's weak western-backed government, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, insisted on the eve of the conference that his country was "moving into an era of peace, stability and normalcy".

He admitted however that his hopes for a "huge Marshall Plan for Somalia" - echoing the US aid scheme to rebuild post-war Europe - were dim, saying: "I really have no clue of what they will say tomorrow."

Somalia has had no effective government since 1991 and in recent years the Shabaab rebels and other militant groups have taken an increasing hold on large parts of the country.

But in recent days Somalia has recorded a series of gains.

The Somali premier said on Wednesday that Somali and Ethiopian troops seized back the southwestern city of Baidoa, which had been one of the Shabaab’s main bases, leaving the group's fighters in central Somalia increasingly isolated.

Britain in particular has warned of the danger posed by the Shebab, with Cameron saying Wednesday that the group "encourages violent jihad not just in Somalia but also outside Somalia".

Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that Shebab fighters had officially joined ranks with the al-Qaeda network.

Victory in Baidoa came as the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to boost the African Union force in Somalia, known as Amisom, from 12 000 to more than 17 000 troops to fight the Shabaab.

Global centre for piracy

Somalia's chaos has also made it a global centre for piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but the international fleet mobilised in 2008 recorded a slight reduction in attacks last year against merchant ships.

Famine zones in Somalia declared by the United Nations last August were announced to have improved to emergency conditions earlier this month, but despite massive international aid efforts, conditions remain grim.

On the political front, Somalia's president, the presidents of the breakaway Puntland and Galmudug regions, and the commander of the anti-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa signed a UN-backed deal on Saturday.

But in a sign of low expectations, a follow-up summit is already scheduled for June in Istanbul.

Meanwhile Britain confirmed that Foreign Secretary William Hague and "several of his counterparts" will discuss the bloodshed in Syria on the sidelines of the Somalia conference.

Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar is also set to meet Clinton for talks aimed at easing tensions between Islamabad and Washington.