May 6, 2015 / 12:42 PM / in 2 years

U.S.' Kerry talks diplomatic ties on surprise visit to Somalia

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to speak at a news conference at the Nairobi Sankara Hotel, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya. REUTERS/Andrew Harnik/Pool

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The United States will begin the process of reestablishing a diplomatic mission in Somalia after a more than 20-year break, John Kerry said on Tuesday as he became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Horn of Africa nation.

Western nations have poured aid into Somalia to help reconstruction and prevent it from sliding back into the hands of al Shabaab.

An African Union force, AMISOM, supported by U.S. drone strikes, has pushed the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group from its former strongholds, but it uses territory inside the country still under its control to launch attacks there and in Kenya and other neighboring states.

“In recognition of the progress made and the promise to come, the United States will begin the process of establishing the premises for a diplomatic mission in (the Somali capital) Mogadishu,” Kerry said in a statement.

During a three-hour visit inside the perimeter of the city’s airport, surrounded by seven-foot walls of sandbags, Kerry met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the prime minister and provincial leaders.

“While we do not yet have a fixed timeline for reopening the embassy, we are immediately beginning the process of upgrading our diplomatic representation,” Kerry said.

MORE PROGRESS NEEDED

In February, Washington named Katherine Dhanani as its ambassador to Somalia, the first since the early 1990s when fighting between warlords plunged the nation into chaos.

The United States pulled its forces out of Somalia after the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident when a U.S. helicopter was shot down over Mogadishu, killing 18 soldiers - at that time the deadliest day for the U.S. military since the Vietnam war.

Other Western nations, including Britain, have already opened embassies. For now, Dhanani will make regular trips to Somalia from a base in Nairobi, a U.S. official said.

Kerry said Somalia had made progress but acknowledged more was needed.

In a bid to shore up the government and expand its control, Somalia is due to hold a referendum on a new constitution and a presidential election in 2016. Diplomats say political bickering and government reshuffles have hindered that process.

Somalia’s president was previously picked by lawmakers who were themselves nominated, not voted for, by their communities.

A senior State Department official, who briefed reporters ahead of the visit, said Somalia was expected to hold “some form of election” in 2016.

“It has to be something that shows that they are moving forward in terms of a representative government,” the official said.

Somali officials were only told on Monday of Kerry’s visit due to security concerns, initially being told a lower ranking official was visiting.

“This is a great moment for us,” President Mohamud said as he greeted Kerry at the airport, remarking that the capital had changed over the past two years.

“The roads are less bumpy and we have traffic jams,” he said, to which Kerry replied: “Well, you’re getting normal.”

Writing by Lesley Wroughton in Nairobi; Editing by Louise Ireland and John Stonestreet

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