UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked insurgents to end violence during a surprise visit Friday to war-torn Mogadishu, the first in 18 years by a leader of the world body.
Wearing a bullet-proof jacket and flanked by a guard, Ban was welcomed by Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali to Mogadishu, often described as the world's most dangerous city.
| UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) meets women as he stands next to Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali (R) after his arrival at Mogadishu's Adan Abulle airport on Friday. |
"We call on the opposition armed group Al-Shebab to stop violence and participate in the peace process in the country," Ban told reporters here after meeting Somalia's transitional leadership.
After making a brief visit to the African Union mission (AMISOM) at its airport base, AU forces escorted him through the bombed-out city to the presidential palace.
"Security is tightened and everything is under control," Mohamed Abdirahman Ali, a Somali government security official, said.
Ban said his visit was the first to Mogadishu since 1993, when the world body still had a large Somalia peacekeeping force, whose deployment was considered a debacle and left a lasting trauma among Western military planners.
He said the UN "will help Somalia establish peace by assisting AMISOM and the Somali government."
Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said the visit "encourages peace and development" and "demonstrates how security has improved in Mogadishu."
The city has nonetheless seen an increase in grenade and roadside bomb attacks since Shebab abandoned fixed positions there in August and switched to guerrilla tactics against the Western-backed government.
But Ban's visit also comes at a time when pressure is growing on the Shebab, as pro-government Somali forces are now backed not just by AMISOM in Mogadishu, but also by Kenyan troops in the south and Ethiopian soldiers in the West.
Ban later flew to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, the world's largest and home to more than 400,000 people, mostly Somalis.
"This is a quite humbling experience. My heart and mind are crying inside. I've heard so many concerns and difficulties," the UN chief said.
Somalia has been ravaged by two decades of conflict and several efforts to stabilise the country have largely been ineffective.
The 9,700-strong AU force comprising Burundian and Ugandan troops has failed to stamp out the Shebab rebels, who have been fighting to topple the Somali government for five years.
On Thursday, Ban welcomed Kenya's plans to "re-hat" its military intervention in the south and bring the troops under AMISOM command.
Kenya's contribution would help bring the force to its full authorised capacity of 12,000.
Nairobi unilaterally sent troops across its border with southern Somalia in October in what it said was a move to contain attacks by the Shebab, whom it blamed for a spate of kidnappings that have dealt to a blow to Kenyan tourism.
Next year is due to bring an end to eight years of a Somali transitional administration that has failed to fulfil most of its key objectives.
The transitional Somali government was formed in neighbouring Kenya in 2004 with a five-year mandate to reconcile the conflict-shattered country, write a new constitution and hold elections.
Ban urged Somali leaders to implement a September peace plan and warned against extending the life of the current government, which expires in August 2012.
"On the political front, we have a roadmap. It has been widely endorsed. We must move ahead, quickly. It must be done in an inclusive and transparent way. The deadline is August next year.
Further extension of this roadmap will be untenable," he said.
The September 6 political deal focuses on improving security in Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia, national reconciliation, a draft charter, governance and institutional reforms.
The UN Security Council has warned that it could withdraw funds for Somalia if the transitional government does not meet the August deadline.
Diplomats say there could even be sanctions for anyone seen as putting a brake on attempts to rebuild a working government.