NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged Thursday to send more help to Somalia's besieged interim government to prevent radical Islamist militias from turning that troubled country into "a future haven for global terrorism."
Speaking on the second day of her seven-nation African tour, Clinton said the Obama administration would "expand and extend" its support for Somalia, without offering specifics. She hinted, however, that a recent U.S shipment of some 40 tons of weapons and ammunition to the Somali government had helped stave off an offensive by the well-armed radical group al Shabaab, which U.S. officials say is linked to al Qaida.
"Very early in the administration I made the decision, which the president supported, to accelerate and provide aid to the (Somali government) when it was in a very difficult position," Clinton said after talks with the Somali president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. "And we are very pleased that, under President Sheik Sharif's leadership, (it) is in a much stronger position now."
Clinton met Ahmed in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, because Somalia is considered too dangerous for most Western officials to enter. In April, when U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., visited the battle-scarred capital, Mogadishu, insurgents fired mortar rounds near his plane as it left the country. Payne and his delegation were unharmed.
U.S. officials allege that al Shabaab, from the Arabic word for "youth," is fueled by militants and money from foreign countries, and aims to establish a beachhead for al Qaida in volatile East Africa. The FBI is investigating whether as many as 20 Somali-Americans disappeared from the Minneapolis, Minn., area to join al Shabaab, and police in Australia said earlier this week that they'd arrested four men with al Shabaab connections for allegedly plotting a domestic terrorist attack.
"If al Shabaab were to obtain a haven in Somalia, which could then attract al Qaida and other terrorist actors, it would be a threat to the United States," Clinton said.
She also threatened to "take action," without elaborating, against the Red Sea country of Eritrea for allegedly funneling weapons and supplies to the militants. Eritrea, which views Ahmed's government as a client of its blood enemy, Ethiopia, has denied the allegations.
Ahmed, a boyish-looking former schoolteacher who met Clinton in a dark suit and embroidered cap, led a coalition of Islamic courts, including al Shabaab, that briefly ruled Mogadishu in 2006. After he became president the militants swiftly turned on him, accusing him of being a puppet of Western countries, including the United States, which is Ahmed's main financier.
Clinton called the government "the best hope we've had in quite some time" for stability in Somalia, which has been beset by civil war for 18 years.
"U.S. support is very important to us," Ahmed said, rejecting the militants' criticisms. "The U.S., because it is a superpower, has the responsibility to move us out of the current crisis."
The conflict has created a humanitarian disaster as grave as any in the world. Nearly 300,000 Somalis have fled to overcrowded camps and urban neighborhoods in Kenya while 1.3 million more are refugees in their own land, living in makeshift shelters and huts across the country, the United Nations says.
Clinton said the U.S. government would continue to send humanitarian assistance and medical supplies for the roughly 40 percent of Somalis who need urgent help as they struggle through drought, disease and the never-ending war.
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