The United States said Friday it will convene an international meeting next week in New York on the situation in Somalia. The State Department says the new Somalia "contact group" will be aimed at assisting the country's struggling transitional administration.
The move to create the Somalia contact group comes amid worsening factional violence in the country in recent days and the capture of the capital Mogadishu by a hard-line Islamic militia group.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer will chair the meeting of countries and organizations with interests and programs in Somalia. The east African country has been plagued by civil warfare and been without a functioning central government for more than a decade.
McCormack said the aim will be to assist the transitional Somali government based in the southwestern town of Baidoa, which has been struggling for two years to consolidate its authority:
"The goal of this group is to promote concerted action and coordination to support the Somalia transitional federal institutions," he said. "So we're going to be working with other interested states, international organizations on this matter, and talking about how we might coordinate our efforts in a concerted way to support the transitional federal institutions."
McCormack said plans for the meeting were still being made but that it would involve the United Nations and a number of European and African governments as well as the United States.
He would not link the convening of the meeting to the capture of Mogadishu and surrounding areas by the militia known as the Islamic Courts Union, saying only that U.S. officials "think it is the right time" for such a gathering.
The Islamic Courts Union has accused the United States of materially supporting opposing armed factions, and U.S. officials expressed concern after its capture of the capital that Somalia might become a safe-haven for terrorists.
However, the group sent the United States and other concerned governments an open letter a few days ago denying any intention to help terrorists and saying it did not want to be considered an enemy.
Spokesman McCormack said Wednesday that as a matter of principle the United States would work with groups or individuals having an interest in a stable, secure Somalia and in fighting terrorism.
However, he said Friday the United States has not yet replied to the letter and is reserving judgment on the group's overture.
The United States has had no official presence in Mogadishu since 1994, when it ended a famine relief mission after a street battle between U.S. forces and a warlord faction in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed.
U.S. dealings with Somali factions have been handled through the American embassy in Nairobi. McCormack said he did not think Somali groups would be represented at the New York meeting, though preparations were still at an early stage.