Mogadishu (AFP) – East African foreign ministers met in Mogadishu on Saturday to push peace efforts in war-torn Somalia, the first time the regional bloc has met in the country for almost three decades.
Dozens of heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets, where Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab militants regularly carry out bombings and killings.
Ministers from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda — who have contributed troops to the 22,000-strong African Union force in Somalia — are all taking part in the one-day meeting, organised by the regional IGAD bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Held in a heavily guarded hotel near the main government district in Mogadishu, it is one of the largest and highest profile meetings in the capital for years.
Key issues include security and political reconciliation within the Horn of Africa nation, riven by conflict since 1991.
“This is an important regional event, which is taking place in Somalia for the first time in 28 years,” Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud said.
“IGAD is a guest of the Somali people… so let us prove to the world we can do this,” he said in a televised speech to the nation.
– City lockdown –
Leaders including UN chief Ban Ki-moon have visited Mogadishu in recent years, but important visitors rarely leave the fortified walls of the airport zone to travel on the dangerous city streets.
“We are very happy that Mogadishu is secure enough to host such an international conference,” said Abdirahman Duale Beyle, Somalia’s acting foreign minister.
Mohammed Affey, Kenyan official and IGAD envoy to Somalia called the meeting “historic.”
The Shebab have also carried out attacks across the wider east African region.
The talks come after Somalia’s parliament last month endorsed Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke as prime minister, following bitter infighting and a falling out between the president and the previous premier.
The United Nations, the United States and the European Union — key backers of Somalia’s fragile government — all warned that power struggles were a damaging distraction for the country.
Much of Mogadishu was in lockdown on Saturday.
“They are complicating life for ordinary residents. Mogadishu is not yet ready to host international meetings,” said Ahmed Suleiman, a resident of the coastal city.
“Every important street is closed and that is the only thing they can do to secure the conference.”
Shebab fighters have staged repeated attacks in the heart of the government zone, including on the presidential palace, as well as on the airport, a vast base that houses several foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of the AU force.
The Somali government, which took power in August 2012, was the first to be given global recognition since the collapse of Siad Barre’s hardline regime in 1991.
Billions in foreign aid has been poured in with the government initially hailed as offering the best chance for peace in a generation.
But like its predecessors, it has since become mired in political infighting and corruption.