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Somalia looks to future at London conference

Update: February, 23/2012 - 12:13

LONDON – World powers meet with Somalia's fragile government in London on Thursday to build on progress in the struggle against Islamist militants, pirates and poverty after two decades of unrest.

The meeting of some 50 nations and organisations, including US Secretary off State Hillary Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, comes a day after Somalia announced a major victory over the al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels.

But the world will be under pressure to 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 of Thursday's conference.

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 revealed on Wednesday.

"We would contemplate imposing both travel restrictions and visa bans on individuals who serve as spoilers in the political process," the US official told reporters under the condition of anonymity.

Britain said its "primary objective in Somalia is to seek a lasting political solution that will bring peace and security to the country, and reduce threats to the UK."

"With engagement from attendees at the highest level, the conference will agree a series of practical measures to support Somalia," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Opening statements by British Prime Minister David Cameron are due to start around 1000 GMT and there will be a press conference by the key players around 1600 GMT.

Other participants at the conference include the European Union, the African Union and the Arab League, as well as the head of the breakaway Somaliland region.

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, saying: "I really have no clue of what they will say tomorrow."

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.

But in recent days Somalia has recorded a series of gains.

The Somali premier said on Wednesday that Somali and Ethiopian troops seized back the southwestern city of Baidoa, which had been one of the Shebab's main bases, leaving the group's fighters in central Somalia increasingly isolated.

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." AFP

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