, BRUSSELS, Jan 30 – Somalia took a fresh step in its return to the international fold on Wednesday with a high-profile EU visit by its leader that comes days after finally winning US recognition.
Months after his election, new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was to meet the European Union’s top officials, marking what a senior diplomat said was the African nation’s “move from hopelessness to hope.”
“This visit symbolises a highly significant shift in the way the world sees Somalia and Somalis see the world,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We want to encourage Somalia, say we are with them, that we take them seriously,” the source added.
At the 27-nation bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, Mohamud is to meet successively EU president Herman Van Rompuy, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the head of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso.
Mohamud, a university lecturer, was elected in September after eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled government, bringing hope of an effective central government after more than two decades of chaos and war.
Recent months have seen a 17,000-strong African Union force, fighting alongside government forces – many of them EU-trained – and Ethiopian soldiers remove Islamist Shabaab insurgents from the capital and from key towns.
EU support to Somalia in the last years has focused on three fronts, defence, diplomacy and development, a formula that the bloc is likely to try on beleaguered West African state Mali in the coming weeks, as it likewise has been under attack from Islamist fighters.
Last week, EU ministers agreed to extend an EU mission to train soldiers in Somalia for another two years at a cost of around 11 million euros.
Launched in 2010 it has trained some 3,000 Somali troops.
The EU’s anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast, EUNAVFOR, has also been extended until December 2014.
Elections in Somalia have been set for 2016 “but in the meantime we cannot be complacent,” an EU official said.
He said next steps for Somalia will necessitate a new deal with its global partners to clear its huge financial arrears and put in place international aid programmes to help establish the government’s legitimacy.
An international meeting of players involved with the Horn of Africa nation may be held soon.
Mohamud’s administration too will need to continue extending control over the territory and improving security while easing testy relations with its neighbours.
Less than two weeks ago Mogadishu took a crucial step on launching a new era in its ties with the United States, which recognised its government for the first time since 1991.
“Today is a milestone. It is not the end of the journey, but it is an important milestone towards that end,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after meeting Mohamud.