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Turkey Hosts UN-Sponsored Conference on Somalia

Turkey is hosting a U.N.-sponsored, three-day conference on Somalia to address conflict, piracy and the deepening humanitarian crisis in the war-torn nation. The conference is just the latest step by Turkey in its bid for greater influence on the African continent.

The three-day summit is one of the biggest international gatherings in years to discuss Somalia - a country ravaged by civil war for more than two decades.

Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, will join regional leaders, businessmen and envoys from the African countries providing troops for peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. The hope is that new initiatives for reconstruction and job creation will be devised to also help bolster Somalia's weak transitional federal government.

Burak Ozgergin is a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry. "We hope to contribute to the peace and stability process by offering the forum to discuss the specific needs of Somalia. In the 21st century, a responsible member of the international community cannot simply ignore Somalia," he said.

Last year, the country committed five warships to an international force that patrols the Somali coast to help combat piracy. While piracy will be discussed at this conference, Ozgergin says there is a more significant issue behind this weekend's summit. "This is part of our foreign policy initiatives regarding Africa on a large scale. We have decided to extend our horizons towards the continent. We've just opened five new embassies in Africa. And we are hoping to open twice more in the coming year," he said.

Historically, the Ottoman Empire has had considerable relations with Africa. Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Sudan were totally or partially subject to Ottoman rule. But with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, contact between the two broke off.

The Turkish foreign ministry continues to stress that their relationship with Africa is based on deepening cooperation, however, rather than neo-colonialism.

Turkey's Africa initiative, which began when the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AK, declared 2005 the "Year of Africa." Increasing Turkish investment in Africa represents a convergence of both governmental and business policies.

Last October, one of Turkey's largest banks, Asya Bank, entered the Africa market in collaboration with Islamic Cooperation Development, a subsidiary of Islamic Development Bank.

The head of the Islamic Cooperation Development, Khaled Mohammed Al-Aboodi, described the deal as groundbreaking. "Through this initiative, we will be providing support to corporations in Africa, in terms of project finance trade finance and also advisory services. Of course, we are starting with four banks in Niger, Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania, but we also expand to other countries in western and central Africa," he said.

Turkish industrialist and former head of the country's business confederations, Omer Bollat, says Africa is key to Turkish business efforts to diversify and reduce dependence on European markets. "The Turkish economy with this present government has been opening up to Middle Eastern, Gulf countries, African countries, particularly north African countries. And, the Turkish economy is diversifying its services and markets, not to be much dependent on the European Union market," he said.

With European markets stagnant as a result of the global economic downturn, observers say developing new trade ties is a smart move. Some critics say that Turkey is shifting focus away from the E.U., as its membership bid has ground to a virtual halt.

Foreign ministry spokesman Ozgergin dismisses the claim. "Foreign policy is not a zero sum game. We can direct our interests to Africa, while maintaining our close alliance ties with the U.S. and maintaining our bid to join the European Union. This should be seen as part of a new vigorous energetic Turkish foreign policy," he said.

Ankara argues that its new engagement with Africa is just another example of the country establishing itself as a powerful regional player. And the growing trade that it brings can only enhance the appeal of Turkey to Europe.