WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States (US) and Somalia on Thursday launched a new era of diplomatic relations, as Washington recognised the African nation's government for the first time since 1991.
"Today is a milestone. It is not the end of the journey, but it is an important milestone towards that end," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after talks with new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
"For the first time since 1991, the US is recognising the government of Somalia," she said, adding Washington now wanted "an open, transparent dialogue about what more we can do to help the people of Somalia realise their own dream."
The move turns the page on the darkest chapter in ties between the two nations, when in 1993 Americans were anguished by scenes 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.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since 1991. But a new Somali administration took office last year, ending eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled government.
"Somalia is very grateful for the unwavering support from the US to the people of Somalia," Mr Mohamud told Mrs Clinton, after earlier meeting US President Barack Obama at the White House.
He said his country was "emerging from a very long, difficult period" but now they were moving from a time of "instability, extremism, piracy...to an era of peaceful...development."
In recent months, a 17,000-strong African Union force, fighting alongside government troops and Ethiopian soldiers, and backed by US aid, finally wrested a string of key towns from the control of Islamist Shebab insurgents.
"Today, thanks to the extraordinary partnership between the leaders and people of Somalia with international supporters, al-Shebab has been driven from Mogadishu and every other major city in Somalia," Mrs Clinton said.
"For the first time in two decades, this country has a representative government with a new president, a new parliament, a new prime minister, and a new constitution."
She stressed that there was still a lot of work facing the country's new leaders, "but they have entered into this important mission with a level of commitment that we find admirable."
A White House statement said that Mr Obama had congratulated the Somali leader on his election when he dropped by a meeting with US Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and "noted the impressive security and political gains over the past year in Somalia."
Mr Obama also "acknowledged the many challenges facing Somalia but expressed optimism about Somalia's future."
A university lecturer, Mr Mohamud defied predictions to be chosen by lawmakers as Somalia's new president from among a dozen hopefuls in September elections.
In a sign of the violence still plaguing his country, however, he survived an assassination attempt just days after his inauguration.
"We are working for a Somalia that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors, where its citizens can go about their daily lives in safety," Mr Mohamud told Clinton.
"Instability, violent extremism, and crime in Somalia are threat not only to Somalia, but to the region, and the world at large. We look to the future with hope, pride, and optimism."
The US move opens doors to the country, which will also be the focus of a new international conference to be hosted in Britain in May.
A US official, who asked to remain anonymous, had said no official American aid package was unveiled at Thursday's State Department meeting.
However "the fact that we recognize a government there would allow us to do things through USAID we have not been able to do before," he said, and would also pave the way for aid from the World Bank and the IMF.