, NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 6 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to meet on Thursday in Kenya with Somalia’s embattled president, who faces a bruising offensive by groups experts say could turn the country into a new Afghanistan.
In Nairobi, Mrs Clinton will hold the highest-level US meeting yet with Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who the United States believes is the best hope of stabilising a nation torn by conflict for nearly two decades.
Mrs Clinton told reporters she would speak with Sharif on "what else the international community can do to try to support his efforts to stabilise Somalia, to create a functioning government".
"It poses a threat to Kenya, poses a threat to the stability of Africa and beyond," she told reporters.
But she acknowledged that it was a "very difficult conflict", pointing to "terrorist elements" within Somalia.
She was referring to the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab movement, which along with more traditional Islamist groups are posing a threat to the government of Sharif, a more moderate Islamic leader.
President Barack Obama’s administration said in June it was shipping urgent supplies of arms and ammunition to Somalia. Johnnie Carson, the top US diplomat for Africa, said Mrs Clinton was ready to offer further support to Sharif.
The United States and its African allies accuse Eritrea of fomenting the insurgency in Somalia.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned last week that Eritrea had a "very short window" to change course or face the wrath of the United States, including possible sanctions.
Somalia has long bedeviled US leaders.
Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, hastily ended a humanitarian mission shipping food to the country after an intense 1993 battle with a warlord killed nearly two dozen US and coalition troops and hundreds of Somalis.
Mrs Clinton started her day on Thursday by laying flowers at the US embassy. The embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were destroyed in twin bombings 11 years ago Friday that killed 224 people, almost all of them Africans.
Experts fear that Somalia could become a haven for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups if Sharif is not actively strengthened by his international partners.
"If the international community doesn’t fully understand the threat, the end game will be 96 all over again, the year the Taliban entered Kabul," one diplomat said.
Mrs Clinton will also speak to students before flying late in the day to South Africa, her second stop on a seven-nation tour of Africa that is her longest trip since becoming the top US diplomat six months ago.
Somalia is one of the key priorities for Mrs Clinton’s trip. In South Africa, she will also take up another hotspot by seeking African pressure on Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to institute democratic and economic reforms.
Mrs Clinton is also highlighting development issues and an issue dear to her heart — the rights of women.
In Nairobi on Wednesday, she told a forum of some 40 nations that the United States was committed to supporting Africa but that African nations needed to fight corruption and improve governance.
Mrs Clinton was underscoring a message made last month in Ghana by Obama, whose African roots have led to intense interest in his administration across the continent.