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Somalia must form new government, EU’s Ashton says

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Somalia’s leaders have shown a commitment to reform but must move to install a new government in the economically and politically fragile country, the EU’s foreign policy chief said during a visit on Monday.

Catherine Ashton’s first visit to the war-ravaged country coincided with African Union driving Islamist militants from a port south of the capital.

Ashton said she had frank discussions with the country’s leaders a day ahead of an expected, though already delayed, vote for a new parliamentary speaker.

That vote is seen as a crucial step towards the chamber electing a new president, the culmination of a reform process mired by allegations of intimidation, bribery and repeated setbacks.

“What I’ve seen is real commitment, a recognition that the world is watching and an understanding that we need to see this process reach conclusion,” Ashton told reporters in Mogadishu’s heavily fortified airport.

Since the outbreak of civil conflict in 1991 there has been no central government control over most of the country, but now there is an opportunity to close that long chapter through a regionally brokered and U.N.-backed roadmap.

As part of the process, a new president should have been elected before August 20.

In spite of heavy pressure from donors, the deadline was missed, though Western diplomats hope the delay will last no more than a few weeks. The bigger question is whether the new government can make a break from the string of ineffective interim administrations of recent years.

“It is so important to get the speaker elected tomorrow and get parliament moving. We’ve seen what needs to be done and we’ve also seen Mogadishu beginning to thrive,” Ashton said, referring to the city’s economic recovery over the last year.

REBELS ABANDON PORT

About 90 km (55 miles) south of the coastal city, al Qaeda-allied rebels abandoned their positions in the strategic port of Marka under military pressure from African Union soldiers.

It could be a tactical retreat, as the rebels have done before, pulling out of Mogadishu more than a year ago and numerous other strongholds since.

“Our enemies will never control Marka peacefully,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab’s military operation, told Reuters on Monday.

A number of al Shabaab’s top commanders had fled towards Marka in recent months following a string of victories by the allied forces, the African Union force, known as AMISOM, said.

“The capture of Marka is also critical for AMISOM future operations to liberate the city of Kismayo, the extremists’ largest source of illicit revenue,” it said in a statement.

Separately, the U.N.‘s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement issued in Nairobi that gunmen killed one of its staff members, Yassin Mohamed Hassan, a Somali aid worker in Marka.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said Hassan was part of a mission overseeing irrigation infrastructure rehabilitation.

FAO, which has over 100 staff living and working across Somalia, is one of the few agencies that still have access to some of the most dangerous parts of Southern Somalia.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh, Feisal Omar; Editing by James Macharia and Michael Roddy)

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