MOGADISHU, Somalia: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Somalia's seaside capital Friday, the first trip in nearly two decades by the U.N.'s top leader to a city known for a seemingly perpetual state of war. Ban announced that the U.N. would move its Somalia political office from Kenya to Mogadishu next year.
Ban's arrival in the war-torn capital city was made possible because of the military gains that African Union forces have made this year against al-Shabab militants, who last year at this time controlled most of Mogadishu. Still, the militants have been waging a campaign of roadside and suicide bomb attacks, injecting some risk into the U.N. chief's visit.
Ban, who was wearing a dark blue bulletproof vest when he landed, met with the leaders of Somalia's weak, U.N.-backed government and officials from the African Union military force.
"I believe we are now at a critical juncture, a moment of fresh opportunities for the future of Somalia people ... to bring a new measure of stability and possibilities to people's lives," he told a news conference at Mogadishu's presidential palace.
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed called the trip historic and said it proved that progress is being made.
Ban said that the U.N.'s Political Office for Somalia will relocate to Mogadishu in January. He also welcomed the decision by Kenya's parliament this week to contribute troops to the African Union force, which is now comprised mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
Kenya's military spokesman said Friday that the country's deployment to the African Union force, which was approved by Kenya's parliament on Wednesday, would take overall troop numbers above the 12,000 allowed by its U.N. Security Council mandate. Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir said the merging of Kenyan troops into the AU force - currently 9,000 strong - still requires Security Council approval and that he expects the process to take several months.
Though the improved security allowed for Ban's trip, the U.N. chief also delivered a warning to Somalia's political leaders that they must make faster progress on a four-point plan to improve security, governance, reconciliation and create a constitution. The plan, known as the roadmap, is to be implemented by next August or the government risks losing international funding.
One reason the U.N. political office is opening in Mogadishu is so that the U.N. can keep closer tabs on Somalia's leaders and ensure they are making more progress toward the four goals, a U.N. official said on condition he wasn't identified because of the sensitive nature of the comments.
Ban told a news conference after his meeting with Mogadishu's leaders that he stressed the importance of seizing the moment. "We have a very limited window of opportunity," he said. "Now is the time to advance on the Constitution and parliamentary reform."
Ban's trip was surrounded by secrecy. No public announcement had been made of Ban's visit though rumors began circulating around Mogadishu on Thursday, when Ban was visiting neighboring Kenya. The visit was the first to Mogadishu by the U.N.'s top official since Boutros Boutros-Ghali visited in 1993.
Mogadishu fell into chaos in 1991 after its last president was ousted. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the country into a near perpetual state of anarchy the last two decades. After the failed 1993 U.S. military intervention that ended with the battle known as "Black Hawk Down," the international community largely pulled out of Mogadishu.
The city hosts no international embassies and very few Western aid workers. The U.N.'s mission for Somalia has been based in neighboring Kenya for years.
Ban's visit signals that the U.N. believes progress is being made, at the least by the African Union military force and perhaps even the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu known as the Transitional Federal Government. The TFG has a president, a prime minister, Cabinet and hundreds of parliamentarians, though the government has few accomplishments it can point to and controls only the capital.
After the short visit to Mogadishu, Ban flew to Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, which is located in eastern Kenya near the border with Somalia. Dadaab hosts nearly a half million refugees, mostly from Somalia. Tens of thousands of new arrivals walked for days or weeks on foot to reach Dadaab earlier this year to escape Somalia's famine.