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NORTHWEST NEWS

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McMenamins
Laura Smith-Spark CNN

LONDON (CNN) -- Somalia's president appealed for support for his struggling country Tuesday, comparing it to a young sapling that needs help to get started.

"We need support; we need assistance and investment; and we need protection from those who try to knock us over," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told delegates at a conference in London.

The goal, he said, is for Somalia eventually to stand strong and tall on its own, a country "at peace with itself and its neighbors and which poses no threat to the world," with a thriving economy, strong values and a good education system.

"People may ask why Somalia matters at this time but there is a huge amount at stake right now: the future of our country, the security of the region and the wider world, and the removal of the piracy stranglehold on the Gulf of Aden," he said.

Delegations from 50 nations and groups gathered for the meeting, hosted jointly by the UK and Somali governments.

The discussions are focusing on Somalia's plans for developing its security forces and justice system, as well as its management of public money, as the African nation struggles to emerge from more than two decades of conflict.

The Somali government will also outline how it plans to resolve outstanding political issues within the country, according to the UK Foreign Office, and the international community will discuss how to support the implementation of those plans.

Representatives of the United Nations, African Union and International Monetary Fund are at the conference, as well as friends and neighbors of Somalia.

Security has improved since international meetings on Somalia last year, the UK Foreign Office said ahead of the conference, and Somalis have chosen a "more legitimate" parliament and government.

"This year, the new government needs support if it is to bring about real change for the people of Somalia, and end the threats of terrorism and piracy, as well as the scourge of famine," it said.

An international report released last week estimated that nearly 260,000 people died in a 2011 famine -- in part because the world was too slow to react. Half of those who died were children younger than 5.

"The world is watching #Somalia today," Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said via his Twitter account Tuesday.

He said the country's progress so far had defied the skeptics but challenges remain in the fight against the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group Al-Shabaab.

"With the support of our friends and partners the progress must be made unstoppable. A bright future for #Somalia is within touching distance," he tweeted Monday.

Mogadishu attack

Despite the gains, security remains a concern even in the capital, Mogadishu.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a convoy carrying a Qatari delegation through the city, killing at least eight people and wounding seven, authorities and witnesses said. Those killed were bystanders, authorities said, with no one in the convoy hurt.

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bombing, and said six soldiers were killed and nine wounded.

AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, is playing a key role in efforts to quell the militant group.

Brigadier Michael Ondoga, of AMISOM, told CNN Tuesday that although Al-Shabaab was "largely defeated" in Mogadishu, there were still issues with its members "melting into the population" and taking advantage of the city's large size to hide. Mogadishu covers 640 square miles, and its population includes some 300,000 internally displaced people, he said.

But Somali security forces have done a great job in pre-empting many suicide attacks and have arrested some of the Al-Shabaab operatives hiding among the capital's population.

"The situation is generally good at the moment -- the security forces are controlling it very well," Ondoga said.

"Here in the city now, the big guns are quiet, the streets are lit, many (in the) diaspora are coming back, new construction is going on, business is booming," he said.

Somali and AMISOM forces have also won back territory extending a long way out from the capital, he said, leaving Al-Shabaab in control of only a few small areas in the west and some ports in the east.

"So there is great achievement that has been made between the national security forces and AMISOM, and we hope that this continues," Ondoga said. "Eventually, national security forces should be able to man the streets of this country on their own."

Once security is stabilized across the country, piracy should no longer be an issue in the waters around Somalia, he added, since the pirates will no longer have a base to operate from. Somali pirates have been a threat to international maritime traffic for some years.

'Culture of impunity'

International rights group Human Rights Watch called for the London conference to address "widespread human rights abuses by all parties," which, it says, have been overlooked throughout the long years of conflict.

"The failure to address these abuses and the culture of impunity in which they have taken place has contributed to ongoing conflict and insecurity," the group said in a statement.

"A substantial improvement in the respect for human rights and accountability for serious abuses is now essential."

Delegates at the conference are expected to agree on a package of support for Somalia on preventing sexual violence, the UK Foreign Office said.

Somalia was subject to international condemnation this year over a case in which a woman and a journalist were sentenced to prison after she told him she was raped by security forces. She was subsequently acquitted on appeal, but the journalist's conviction was upheld, though his sentence was cut.

"Respect for women's rights and media freedom are fundamental to ensuring the development of a strong, stable and vibrant democracy in Somalia," the White House said in February. "Women should be able to seek justice for rape and other gender-based violence without fear of retribution, and journalists in Somalia must be free to work without being subjected to violence and harassment."

Somalia has lacked an effective central government since 1991, with portions of the Horn of Africa nation left lawless.

CNN's Faith Karimi, Nima Elbagir and Nana Karikari-apau contributed to this report.

 

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