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UN chief visits a safer Somali capital

In the first visit of a UN Secretary General since 1993, Ban Ki-moon promised aid and military support, but warned Somali leaders they must stick to reform pledges.

By Correspondent / December 13, 2011

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon walks through the UN compound in Dadaab refugee camp, the world's largest hosting nearly a half million refugees mostly from Somalia, located across the border from Somalia in eastern Kenya last week. Mr. Ban announced that a key UN agency, the UN political office on Somalia, would move to Mogadishu from neighboring Kenya next month.

Katharine Houreld/AP

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Nairobi, Kenya

The last time a United Nations Secretary-General was in Somalia’s capital, almost two decades ago, protestors blocked roads with burning tyres and brandished cow skulls to show their outrage.

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That was in 1993, in the depths of the country’s civil war, when US forces were withdrawing after the disastrous Black Hawk Down mission and the UN and its 28,000 troops were reviled in Mogadishu

Eighteen years later, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found an altogether warmer welcome during his surprise visit there last week. Security officials still insisted that he wear a bulletproof vest, and he was sped through the city’s wrecked streets in a convoy of armored personnel carriers.

But the mere fact that such a high-profile figure was able to visit what is still considered the world’s most dangerous capital is testament to what one analyst called the “dramatic improvements” in security there in recent months. 

Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents are on the run, pushed out of their long-held positions in the city, and squeezed by fresh Kenyan and Ethiopian offensives in the countryside. 

The country’s famine situation, although still dire with a quarter of a million people facing imminent starvation, is slowly improving, thanks to a massive international aid response during the last six months. 

Pirate attacks off Somalia’s coast dropped by two-thirds in November compared to the same month last year, European naval officials reported last week. 

Mr. Ban said the timing of his visit was in part to celebrate these gains, and he commended both the Somali government and the African Union  (AU) peacekeepers for their efforts to secure such success. 

In recognition of these improvements, Ban announced that a key UN agency, the UN political office on Somalia, would move to Mogadishu from neighboring Kenya next month.  

It will be the first time in more than a decade that the UN will have significant numbers of international staff permanently based in the Somali capital. 

But buried further into his comments was what analysts identified as the real reason for his visit, which was as much about the business of governing Somalia as it was about the symbolism of showing solidarity. 

International humanitarian and development donations to Somalia will top $1.2 billion this year, with another $300 million spent on the AU peacekeeping mission.   

This support, Ban said, “should not be taken for granted” by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), bankrolled since 2004 by the UN and Western nations including the US. President Sheikh Sharif’s administration, dogged by allegations of corruption, is already slipping behind on a tight reform timetable, named the “road map,” designed to lead to democratic elections scheduled for August next year. 

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