Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday named veteran diplomat John Yates to be the United States' special envoy for Somalia. Yates, who has served as U.S. ambassador to several African countries, will be based in Nairobi. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Bush administration has generally resisted pressure from Congress and elsewhere to name special envoys for world trouble spots, saying their roles often overlap with those of regular diplomats.

But an exception is being made for Somalia, which has acute political problems and has not had a resident U.S. ambassador for more than a decade and a half.

Secretary Rice announced the appointment of Yates in a written statement Thursday, saying the move is in furtherance of the U.S. commitment to help Somalis develop national institutions and overcome their violent recent history.

Yates, who had ambassadorships or senior postings in six African countries, technically retired in 2002. But he was called back to duty for Darfur peace talks, and most recently has been coordinating diplomatic contacts on Somalia from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey told VOA the new assignment upgrades the job Yates has already been doing:

"In effect, what we're doing is simply ratifying and acknowledging that role, and acknowledging the importance to the United States of helping the Somali transitional government, and helping the Somali people overcome the legacy of past violence and chaos in that country," he said.

Casey said the U.S. diplomatic priority is to strengthen the internationally backed transitional government, which was able to set up operations in the capital Mogadishu after Ethiopian troops intervened late last year to oust Islamic militants.

He said it further wants to help create conditions that would allow the Ethiopians to withdraw in favor of an African Union peacekeeping force approved by the U.N. Security Council last year:

"We want to work with the AU to get a full contingent of peacekeepers into the country, so that we can have an opportunity for the Ethiopian troops to pull themselves out," he added.  "And that's certainly been their goal, and we want them to be able to leave. But as we've said, we also don't want them to go in such a way that creates a security vacuum, or causes increased violence or increased problems in the country."

The United Nations authorized an 8,000-member force for Somalia, but thus far only about 1,600 Ugandan troops have been sent there. Several other African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, have agreed in principle to deploy troops, but have yet to announce dates.

A senior official here downplayed the notion that the appointment of Yates was a prelude to restoring a U.S. embassy in Somalia, saying that because of security issues, such a move is still a long way off.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer paid a brief visit to the Somali town of Baidoa in early April, becoming the first senior U.S. official to visit the country in more than a decade.