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Britain's Hague in landmark Mogadishu visit


Britain sent its foreign secretary to Mogadishu and appointed an ambassador for the first time in two decades Thursday, marking an unprecedented drive by London to address Somalia's long-running conflict.

William Hague's unannounced visit to a city wracked by frequent suicide, grenade and gun attacks comes ahead of a major conference in London aimed at finding ways to contain the threat posed by Al Qaeda fighters and pirates.

Wearing a flak jacket and helmet, Hague was driven from the airport through the war-battered seaside capital in an armoured vehicle belonging to the African Union military contingent protecting Somalia's embattled government.

He met Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and other top officials and said his visit was a "sign of Britain's commitment to the people and country of Somalia."

"As a further demonstration of our long-term commitment to Somalia, the UK's new ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, has today presented his credentials to President Sheikh Sharif," the Foreign Office quoted him as saying.

The last British ambassador left Somalia 21 years ago, as the Horn of Africa spiralled into chaos during the 1991 ouster of president Siad Barre.

Baugh, previously Britain's senior representative to Somalia, will remain based in the Kenyan capital, a British embassy spokesman in Nairobi said.

He will move to Mogadishu and open an embassy only "when the security situation allows," the spokesman added.

However, the appointment and visit by Hague -- the most senior British official to visit Mogadishu since 1992 -- suggests how significant London considers the crisis in Somalia to be.

Britain considers Somalia a "direct threat" to its security over fears British nationals have joined the Al-Qaeda-linked Shehab insurgents, who are fighting to topple the weak Western-backed government.

In recent years, several foreign fighters -- some of them Somalis in the diaspora -- have joined the Shebab's ruthless battles to seize control of the country and install Islamic rule.

Pirates in central and northern Somalia have also plagued shipping and hold British nationals as well as other foreigners hostage for ransom.

Security was tightened in Mogadishu for Hague's visit, which comes ahead of a London conference due on February 23 aimed at resolving the protracted crises in the lawless Horn of Africa nation.

Britain's Foreign Office says the event "aims to bring together leaders of key partner countries and organisations... to help galvanise a common approach to address the problems and challenges of Somalia that affect us all."

This includes tackling the issues of extremism and the "underlying causes of instability and conflict in Somalia."

Piracy and how best to tackle "the terrorist threat emanating from Somalia" will also top the agenda, as will the humanitarian crisis resulting from conflict and drought.

The meeting, chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, hopes to support a "better future for Somalia and its people," Hague said in Mogadishu, adding that Somalia's president had agreed to attend.

Hague's visit follows that of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in August, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon's in December, the first by a UN secretary general in 18 years.

The UN's special envoy to Somalia last month moved his base from Nairobi to Mogadishu.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991 and the government in Mogadishu is propped up by a 10,000-strong African Union force from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.

Hardline Shebab insurgents control large parts of central and southern Somalia, but are facing increasing pressure from government forces and regional armies.

Armies from neighbouring countries are converging on the Shebab -- Kenyan forces in the south, Ethiopia's army in the south and west, and the AU troops in Mogadishu.

The United Nations says Somalia is suffering the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with three areas hit by famine and nearly 250,000 people facing starvation.