Obama to name first US envoy to Somalia in 20 years

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Turning a new page in their troubled ties, United States President Barack Obama is set to name the first American ambassador to Somalia since the civil war erupted over 20 years ago, a US diplomat said on Tuesday.

"As a reflection both of our deepening relationship with the country and of our faith that better times are ahead, the president will propose the first US ambassador to Somalia in more than two decades," Undersecretary Wendy Sherman told a US think-tank.

She would only say the announcement from Mr Obama, currently on a trip to Europe, was expected "soon" and confirmed that, initially, the new ambassador would be based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Although the US never formally severed ties, the embassy in Mogadishu was closed in 1991 as Somalia descended into chaos amid a bloody power struggle among brutal warlords.

"Almost overnight the very word 'Somalia' became a synonym for chaos," Ms Sherman told the US Institute for Peace.

The darkest chapter in ties came in 1993 when Americans were anguished by scenes of the bodies of US soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a mob after Somali militants shot down two Black Hawk helicopters. Eighteen Americans died, and 80 were wounded.

The Somali government that finally took power in August 2012 was the first to be given global recognition since the hardline regime fell in 1991, and billions of dollars in foreign aid have since poured in to help rebuild the Horn of Africa country.

The US recognised the new government in January 2013.

But while the new Somali government controls the capital Mogadishu, large swathes of rural areas are controlled by Al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab Islamic militants, who have emerged as a new threat to regional peace.

Recent Shebab attacks have targeted key areas of the Somali government, including an attack on the parliament last month, in an apparent bid to discredit claims that they are winning the war against the Islamist fighters.

In September, Shebab carried out its most high-profile attack to date - a suicide commando assault on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall that left at least 67 dead.

"Tomorrow disaster could arrive again, but today there are tangible reasons for hope," Ms Sherman said.

She pointed to efforts to eradicate the scourge of pirates plaguing the coastline, rising real estate prices in Mogadishu and the reopening of stores and businesses.

She said "a secure and united Somalia would weaken the forces of extremism and terror that feed off one another and threaten citizens in almost every country, including the United States".

"Now is the best time, the best chance, in a quarter century for them to realize the promise that accompanied their nation's independence."

But she acknowledged the difficulties facing the impoverished nation, with one third of the country's total income derived from remittances of Somalis abroad, including 130,000 Somali Americans.

"This reminds us how bleak the economic picture in Somalia remains," Ms Sherman, adding that one baby out of 10 dies at birth and of those who survive one in seven is severely malnourished.

The United Nations food agency, the FAO, this week issued a stark warning over food security in Somalia, launching an urgent appeal for US$18 million (S$22.6 million) to stop hunger spreading.

The agency estimated there were 860,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, including 200,000 malnourished children under the age of five.

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