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World pledges new help for Somalia but rebels defiant

Update: February, 24/2012 - 11:40

LONDON – International powers pledged on Thursday to boost aid for Somalia to tackle Islamist militancy, piracy and political instability, warning that failure to help now could hurt the rest of the world.

At a London conference attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and more than 50 other top figures, they issued a communique vowing action against anyone obstructing the peace process.

But even as the leaders discussed the Horn of Africa nation's attempts to end the chaos that has reigned since 1991, Somalia's al-Qaeda-allied Shebab insurgents vowed to "wage war" against any international peace drive.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the problems faced by Somalia's fragile transitional government, whose mandate expires in August, had global implications.

"After two decades of bloodshed and some of the worst poverty on Earth, there are the first signs of fragile progress in Somalia," he said.

"Supporting these efforts is not just right for the people of Somalia, it is right for the whole world.

"Because when pirates are disrupting vital trade routes and kidnapping tourists and when radicalism is poisoning young minds and breeding terrorism, it is in all our interests to support the Somali people in taking back their country."

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 interim government in the impoverished nation.

But she warned that the international community would oppose any move to extend its mandate, adding: "It is time to move forward to a more stable and unified era."

Her language echoed that used in the communique, which called on the interim government to give up power on time, and called on Somalis to work towards the formation of a representative government.

"We agreed to incentivise progress and act against spoilers to the peace process, and that we would consider proposals in this regard" before a follow-up conference in Istanbul in June, it added.

The conference statement also backed the UN Security Council's decision on Wednesday to boost the AU force in the country to 17,000.

Somalia has had no central government since 1991 and in recent years the Shebab rebels and other groups have taken an increasing hold on large parts of the country, while pirates have caused chaos in the Indian Ocean.

But the situation has stabilised in recent months, with the AU force helping Somali troops push the Shebab out of Mogadishu and as recently as Wednesday notching up another victory in the southwestern town of Baidoa.

Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali reiterated that he would "welcome targeted airstrikes against al-Qaeda in Somalia" after reports that Britain's government had considered them.

Clinton however said that she had not seen any military justification for the strikes – despite reports that US drones based in Ethiopia have carried out a series of attacks.

Ban meanwhile urged the world to build on recent progress.

"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 UN secretary-general said.

The Shebab remained in defiant mood on Thursday.

"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" in Somalia.

Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that Shebab fighters had joined forces with al-Qaeda.

In chaotic Mogadishu, residents raised home-made British flags on Thursday in solidarity with the conference.

Two blasts were reported in Baidoa, the town seized from the Shebab by Ethiopian troops and pro-government militia on Wednesday, dealing a major blow to the Islamists.

In another step forward, Somalia's disparate leaders agreed at the weekend on the basic structure of a new parliament and government to replace the transitional body.

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. AFP

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