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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

1 March 2007

Somalia was at a turning point and it was now crucial to rebuild a social contract for a population abandoned for 15 years, Éric Laroche, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

He said a new political environment was emerging in Somalia, and recalled that religious and traditional leaders had met 10 days ago to discuss reconciliation and peace. Indeed, the only alternative to chaos was to support the current institutions. The media should desist from describing the Somali Government as weak, because the Somali people needed to trust in their new Government, and that would not happen when it was called weak. “Believe in it, otherwise, you’re defeating the cause,” he added.

For its part, the United Nations had decided to change its rules of engagement in Somalia, he said. The Islamists had been defeated for the time being and the Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu were soon to be replaced by African Union forces. People were tired, and a slowdown in the fighting against the Ethiopians, despite calls for a global jihad, provided an opportunity.

Having been in the Somali capital every week since the beginning of January, he said it had been quiet, adding that people there had told him things were different this time. The Federal Transitional Government looked organized and was more representative than the warlords previously controlling Mogadishu. It had an agenda and a road map, by which it could be judged in 2009, if it failed to achieve anything.

He said the worst thing the international community could do would be not to believe that something was possible. “If you don’t believe that the institutions are the key solution today, you admit that you want to go back into chaos for another 15 years, and this is very serious.” If the international community wanted to be responsible, it would support the stabilization in Mogadishu and throughout the country. First, the international community must ensure security, for which it awaited the arrival of several thousand African Union forces to replace the Ethiopian troops.

The second requirement was to reinforce law and order, starting with prisons and police forces, he said. However, that would count for nothing without disarming the many fighters in Mogadishu and ensuring their demobilization and reintegration. Stabilization would occur when public administration was organized, starting at the community level. While there were plenty of warlords in Somalia, a system was now in place that could ensure a certain sustainability of stability through elections at the district level.

It was good to have a new Government, but everyone now needed to see how it would translate its vision into real change in their lives, he said. The Government and the Transitional Federal Institutions were weak and needed support. The United Nations had put together a plan, whereby 35,000 children would return to school in Mogadishu, rubbish would be cleared from the streets and health centres would be refurbished. At present, 77 destroyed public buildings in the capital were packed with internally displaced persons.

Asked about the United Nations role, he said two members of the country team would be sent to discuss the mandate for a technical assistance mission. Talks would centre on the security and humanitarian conditions, and aim at paving the way for a potential United Nations peacekeeping mission. A decision had been made in June 2006, following a one-day workshop on re-engagement with Somalia. As a result, some United Nations agencies had been restructured, in order to put more international and senior staff inside south and central Somalia, including in Mogadishu.

There had been two flights to Mogadishu every week, except in the last two, owing to security concerns, he added. Starting today, the United Nations office in Mogadishu would be able to accommodate 15 international staff, and that capacity should increase to 50 in the months to come.

Touching on several other points in response to questions, he said that Somalia’s neighbours had a key role to play; much more international help was needed, especially for the south; and the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former fighters was crucial to stabilization efforts. As for where the Government would be based -– in Baidoa or Mogadishu -– that depended on security. Retaliation to the daily shelling in Mogadishu was affecting civilians, and about 20,000 residents were on the move, but, hopefully, their relocation was temporary.

Regarding the number of troops needed to stabilize the situation, he said that 8,000 was probably the minimum.

Asked about the risk of mixing the need for humanitarian aid with political priorities, he said that was part of an ongoing debate that had begun some years ago and concerned the blurring of lines between humanitarian efforts and politics, which were difficult to separate. It was true that, when the humanitarian response was bolstered on one side, there were always consequences that could be read as a political stand.

Asked if the “regional calculus” had changed at all with the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union, specifically whether the countries previously supporting the Islamists had now changed that support, he said he was not the right person to answer that question. However, the Islamists in Somalia had said the same thing as the Taliban in Afghanistan -- they would retreat and come back very soon.

Responding to a question about pirates reportedly seizing food meant for Somalia, he said the ship had already been emptied at the time. The piracy question had to be addressed by the Somalis. Puntland had eight ships manned by coastal guards who would be in action in the months to come.

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For information media • not an official record

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