International powers called Thursday for urgent action on Somalia, warning that the world will “pay the price” for failing to help the country tackle political unrest, Islamist militants and pirates.
But as officials from 50 countries and organizations gathered in London to discuss how to end two decades of unrest, Somalia’s al-Qaeda allied Shabaab insurgents vowed to “wage war” against any international peace initiative.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among those attending the talks in London, along with the country’s president.
“These problems in Somalia don't just affect Somalia. They affect us all. If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so,” Cameron said as he opened the conference.
Clinton said the United States would push for sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, for those “standing in the way” of progress by the fragile transitional government, the mandate for which expires in August.
She also pledged an extra $64 million in humanitarian assistance to the region to help improve the lives of ordinary Somalis, blighted by famine and civil war for the past 21 years.
“We have come together at a critical halfway point,” she said.
“For decades, the world has focused on what we could prevent from happening in Somalia -- be it conflict, famine, or other disasters. Now we are focused on what we can build. The opportunity is real,” she said.
Ban meanwhile urged the world to build on recent progress after the United Nations agreed to boost the African Union peacekeeping force in the country to 17,000, and after Shabaab Islamist rebels were driven from a key town.
“We have opened a space for peace and stability in Somalia. It is a small space but it presents an opportunity we cannot afford to miss,” the U.N. secretary-general said.
In the chaotic Somali capital Mogadishu, residents raised home-made British flags on Thursday in solidarity with the conference.
Two blasts were reported in Baidoa, the town recaptured on Wednesday, but the black flag of the Shabaab was hauled down off a flag pole in the center of town on Thursday morning.
Despite its recent reverses, the Shabaab remained in defiant mood as it denounced the London conference.
“We will confront and counter, by any means possible, all the outcomes of the London conference,” the fighters said in a statement, accusing the meeting’s delegates of “prolonging the instability.”
The London conference brings together around 40 countries, including the leaders of Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, plus organizations such as the African Union and the Arab League.
But there are doubts about whether the delegates will come up with concrete steps for Somalia when the focus is on other troubles, with Syria being discussed on the sidelines.
Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed urged the international community to make good on previous pledges, saying: “We want to know what about all those resolutions and those hopes that remain as mere words on piece of paper.”
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, whose country sent 4,000 troops into southern Somalia in October to fight the Shabaab, said the Somali government must be helped to build its own security forces.
But Kibaki added that the conference was an “unprecedented opportunity” after the “remarkable progress in the recent months”:
Somalia has had no effective government since 1991 and in recent years the Shabaab rebels and other groups have taken an increasing hold on large parts of the country.
Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that Shabaab fighters had joined forces with al-Qaeda.
Somalia’s chaos has also made it a global center for piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but the international fleet mobilized in 2008 recorded a slight fall in attacks last year against merchant ships.
Famine zones in Somalia declared by the U.N. last August have been downgraded to emergency status, it was announced earlier this month.
On the political front, the Somali president, the presidents of the breakaway Puntland and Galmudug regions, and the commander of the anti-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa signed a U.N.-backed deal on Saturday.
A follow-up summit is already scheduled for June in Istanbul.