, LONDON, Feb 23 – World powers met in London Thursday for a major conference on the future of Somalia aimed at ending two decades of unrest and tackling Al-Qaeda-linked militants and pirates.
British Prime Minister David Cameron opened the meeting of Somali leaders plus representatives from around 50 countries and organisations with an impassioned appeal for greater international assistance.
“These problems in Somalia don’t just affect Somalia. They affect us all,” Cameron said.
“If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so. So as an international community, it is in all our interests to try and help the Somali people address these problems.”
The conference is seeking to build on recent progress a day after Shebab Islamist rebels were driven from a key town in Somalia, and the United Nations agreed to boost a peacekeeping force in the country to 17,000.
The world had to help Somalia strengthen security, to get humanitarian aid into places where it was needed, and to help Somali eforts to build a representative government, said Cameron.
In the chaotic Somali capital Mogadishu, residents raised handmade British flags in solidarity with the conference, even as two blasts were reported in Baidoa, the town recaptured on Wednesday.
But there are doubts about whether they will 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 on Thursday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to say it is a “critical” point for the world to help Somalia’s interim government, whose mandate expires in August.
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 said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also spoke at the opening of the conference.
The leaders of Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, all countries with a major stake in the future of Somalia, were also expected to address the conference.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the boosting of the African Union force plus a series of other recent agreements on piracy and on the political situation made it a “historic moment of opportunity”.
Hague was asked about reports that European nations were considering airstrikes against the Shebab. He told BBC radio the conference was “about addressing the fate of a failed state without western military intervention.”
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.
Somalia has had no effective government since 1991 and in recent years the Shebab rebels and other militant groups have taken an increasing hold on large parts of the country.
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 joined forces with the Al-Qaeda network.
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 fall 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.
On the political front, Somalia’s president, the presidents of the breakaway Puntland and Galmudug regions, and the commander of the anti-Shebab 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.