Leader touts Somalia's potential, resilience

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By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) — Somalia's prime minister said Thursday that his country has more to offer than pirates, militants and images of the hungry, and that Somalis can even teach the world a thing or two about resilience.

Abdiweli Mohamed Ali delivered his hopeful vision at a conference in Istanbul, where hundreds of Somali and international delegates are discussing a transition process for the fragile country. A timetable backed by the United Nations calls for a new constitution and parliament, to be followed by a vote for president and prime minister by Aug. 20, as the nation struggles to emerge from decades of war and famine.

Ali, who survived a suicide bombing in Mogadishu in April, said he hopes Somalia can eventually exploit its long coastline and benefit from the business links of its far-flung diaspora to build a stable economy that links Asia and Africa. For now, though, the country is trying to consolidate gains in the fight against al-Shabab, an Islamic militant group that has links to al-Qaida.

"The al-Shabab element will not survive for too long," Ali predicted. He claimed that its "reckless tactics" had sapped support for the group, which has increased bomb attacks as the territory they control shrinks under pressure from African Union and Somali forces. Pro-government forces took control of the capital in August, but there are concerns that militants might try to again infiltrate areas they have abandoned.

Once in place, a 225-member parliament is to vote for Somalia's new leadership. Voting isn't being opened to the public because of a lack of security across the country. Somali leaders are appealing to donors to set up a trust fund for what is expected to be an arduous effort to rebuild a Horn of Africa nation with weak institutions, or none at all. Many Somalis depend on remittances from relatives abroad. Attacks by Somali pirates on international shipping in past years intensified the image of a country in an anarchic spiral.

Turkey, a rising nation with an activist foreign policy, has emerged as a prominent advocate for stability in Somalia, opening an embassy there last year and sending humanitarian aid worth $51 million, with more in the pipeline. This year, Turkish Airlines launched flights to Mogadishu as part of what Bekir Bozdag, Turkey's deputy prime minister, called a campaign to "break the loneliness and the exclusion of Somalia from the rest of the world."

Turkey deployed a special security team at Mogadishu airport as Somali elders and other delegates boarded a plane for the Istanbul conference earlier this week.

Mahboub M. Maalim, executive secretary of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a regional aid group based in Djibouti, said the forum was helpful because, "we just want to make sure the Somali issue stays on the international radar."

Turkey said no al-Shabab members were invited to the meeting, though militants and figures in the transitional government fought together in past conflicts, and some loose links in a country of shifting alliances are believed to still exist.

Eveline Rooijmans, a humanitarian policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam, said she was concerned that aid was being directed primarily to areas under government control and that civilians in sectors held by al-Shabab were not getting the help they need.

"That is something that is not going to sustainably rebuild Somalia, if you do this," said Rooijmans, adding that aid should not be delivered in a manner that suits "the political and military agendas of the international community."

Some 2.37 million Somalis, or one-third of the population, remain in dire need of humanitarian aid even though the January harvest was adequate and Somalia has been lifted out of famine conditions with the help of international assistance, she said.

Many aid organizations are reluctant to enter regions held by militants because of concerns about safety and accusations that they are helping al-Shabab. The United States has laws against such aid, though they were loosened during the famine that was declared last year after successive failed rains. Additionally, militants exacerbated the famine by letting few agencies into areas under their control.

Ali, the prime minister, said he was anxious for Somalia to shed the label of "failed state" and become a place "where one can travel in peace in the dead of night."

He declared: "Somalia is more than hungry faces in the news, pirates or extremists."

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