Donors pledge over $250 million for Somalia

BRUSSELS (AP) âÄî International donors pledged more than $250 million Thursday to strengthen Somalia’s security forces and try to stop the rampant attacks by armed Somali pirates that have plagued one of the world’s most important waterways. The hefty sum, which included funding for military equipment and material as well as development aid, exceeded the initial request made by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel said. “We have just begun the first step of an important process to restore rule of law in Somalia … which has been a lawless state for 20 years,” Ban told a news conference following a one-day, U.N.-sponsored donors’ conference. Stabilizing Somalia was the focus of Thursday’s meeting, but the near-daily pirate attacks along Somalia’s 1,900-mile-long (3,100-kilometer) coastline that endanger ships from around the world immediately moved to the forefront of the discussions. “Piracy is a symptom of anarchy and insecurity on the ground,” Ban told the delegates. “More security on the ground will make less piracy on the seas.” Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed pledged to do “everything imaginable” to stabilize Somalia and fight piracy. “This phenomenon will not last forever,” he promised, expressing “regret” for the pirates’ actions. The pledges were a recognition of the need to end two decades of anarchy in Somalia and of the threat that further lawlessness posed to the world, not just one nation. The funds included at least $134 million for the African Union peacekeeping mission already in Somalia, which numbers 4,350 now but is expected to expand to 8,000 troops. Another $31 million will go to training the Somali police force by the United Nations and developing Somali security forces and their oversight bodies. The package also included aid for medicine, education and rural development under the auspices of the European Development Fund. According to the U.N. humanitarian agency, an estimated 2.8 million Somalis received food aid in March, up from 1.8 million at the start of 2008. “The situation continues to be very difficult, but with this financial help … I sincerely hope we will be able to control the situation there,” Ban said at a joint news conference with Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU’s executive body. Ahmed, elected by parliament in January, is a former fighter with the Islamic insurgency. He has been trying to broker peace with warring groups after years of chaos and gain legitimacy, but his Western-backed government wields little control outside the capital of Mogadishu, and needs help from African peacekeepers to do even that. U.N. bodies will oversee funding earmarked for Ahmed’s government, which wants to build a police force of 10,000 along with a separate security force of 6,000 members. Ahmed said his government had taken measures to achieve peace and stability and to reconcile with the country’s warring militias. In the final communique, Ahmed pledged to forge a government “open to all those who wanted to join.” He also urged the international community to help his government set up a new coast guard. “It is our duty to pursue these criminals not only on the high seas, but also on terra firma,” he said to loud applause. Those comments may ignore reality. Ahmed’s administration has not gone after the pirates who flash their cash in Somalia’s coastal cities because pirate leaders currently wield more power than his shaky government. In the past year, pirates have hijacked dozens of ships in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, a key shipping lane linking Asia via the Suez Canal to Europe. Piracy experts estimate the seafaring gangs took in about $80 million in ransom payments in 2008. Nearly a dozen nations and organizations âÄî including the U.S., the European Union NATO, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea âÄî have deployed warships to the region. But pirate attacks have still surged, and the gangs still hold at least 15 ships and over 250 crew. ___ Associated Press writers Deborah Seward, Slobodan Lekic, Robert Wielaard, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.