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Somalia talks in the UK: a daunting task

21 February 2012, 15:57

England - World powers gather in London on Thursday for a major conference on Somalia, with recent glimmers of hope overshadowed by a litany of woes including al-Qaeda-linked militants, piracy and famine.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the UN chief Ban Ki-moon and others will join Somali leaders in a bid to find a solution to the unrest in Somalia that has dragged in the international community since 1991.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the conference, said the strategy was to "try to get the whole of the world to get behind the efforts of the Somali people themselves".

"I'm convinced that the international community can help create a breakthrough," he told members of the Somali community in London on Monday.

Foreign Secretary William Hague outlined the scale of the challenge, saying that Somalia had been "the world's most failed state for the last 20 years" and a potential base for terrorism.

The conference comes on the back of some progress in Somalia, including a weekend deal on the future government, combined with some military successes against the Shabaab movement of Islamist rebels.

The Shabaab were driven out of Mogadishu six months ago to the south and west, and appear weakened by a combined onslaught by African Union-backed government forces, with the Kenyan army active in the south and Ethiopian in the west.

But in a sign of the troubles ahead, Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that Shabaab fighters had officially joined ranks with the al-Qaeda network.

Global centre for piracy

Britain, with its large Somali diaspora community, has in particular warned of the dangers of what it says are foreign fighters training in terror camps run by the Shabaab.

Somalia's chaos has also made it a global centre for piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but the international fleet mobilized 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.

The accord signed in the northern town of Garowe proposes a parliamentary system for anarchic Somalia to replace the country's fragile transitional body, whose mandate expires in August.

Ban on Sunday urged the Somali leaders to engage in "full and timely implementation" of the deal and it is likely to be scrutinised at the conference on Thursday.

"We want to ensure that the process is the product of genuine consultation," stressed a senior British diplomat, wary of the dozen previous aborted attempts at reaching an agreement.

Huge financial aid

But the delegates at the conference, which will also gather the African Union, the European Union and the Arab League, face conflicting demands from both Somalians and the different countries affected by the conflict there.

Uganda - which with Burundi forms the backbone of Amisom, the AU force in Somalia - wants to mobilise sustainable funding for an enlarged force of 17 000 troops, an increase of from the current UN-set target of 12 000.

Many contributors from the EU, which has already pumped in €307m of funding, will demand guarantees of political progress.

Jerry Rawlings, the AU's special envoy to Somalia and former Ghanaian president, called on the UN to "pick up the bill, or bring on board others who will help with the bill".

It is all a far cry from the "Marshall Plan" called for earlier this month by Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Abdiwell, referring to the huge financial aid package lent to Europe by the US following World War II.

A follow-up summit is already scheduled for June in Istanbul.

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