John Kerry in surprise Somalia visit

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US Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise trip to Somalia, making him the highest-ranking official to visit the country

US Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise trip to Somalia, making him the highest-ranking official to visit the country (AFP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Mogadishu (AFP) - John Kerry made a surprise trip to Somalia on Tuesday, becoming the first US secretary of state to visit the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.

The top US diplomat was spending just a few hours in the capital, Mogadishu, and was not scheduled to leave the confines of the fortified airport where he met with Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmake.

Officials said Kerry's visit was designed to give a diplomatic push to Somalia's internationally-backed government in their fight against Al-Qaeda's Somalia branch, the Shebab, as well as efforts to build political security in the war-torn country.

"The next time I come, we have to be able to just walk downtown," Kerry said as he met President Mohamud, striking an optimistic tone for the future of the country.

"Downtown Mogadishu is very different now than it was two years ago," the Somali president replied, asserting that security was steadily improving and describing Kerry's flying visit as a "great moment" for Somalia.

A senior State Department official described the visit as "historic".

"I think it will send a strong signal to the Somali people of our commitment," said the official.

"I think it will send a strong signal to Shebab that we are not turning our backs on the Somali people and that we will continue to engage with Somalia until we bring Shebab's terror to an end."

Other senior foreign officials and leaders have visited Mogadishu in recent years, including Britain's former foreign minister William Hague and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kerry thanked Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda which contribute troops to the 22,000 African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that defends the government in Mogadishu and fights Shebab in the regions.

- Drone strikes -

Since 2007 the US has spent "more than half a billion dollars" funding AMISOM, US officials said.

During the same period the US has carried out more than a dozen air and drone strikes against militants, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalists which tracks US covert operations. In September US missiles killed Shebab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.

Somalia endured more than two decades of civil war after the collapse of the government in 1991. The appointment of President Mohamud in 2012 was supposed to signal the beginning of the end of years of instability with elections due in September 2016.

However, the State Department official said that elections "as we know them" were not going to happen.

"This is not going to be a one man, one vote election as we would have hoped it to be," said the official.

Instead the US is now eyeing "some form of election or selection that is different from what they've done before." Mohamud was elected by parliamentarians who were hand-picked by clan elders.

The US has a turbulent and scarred history in Somalia. In 1993 during a doomed military and humanitarian intervention 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during the 'Black Hawk Down' incident later retold in a book and film.

In February the US appointed its first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years. As the US has no embassy there, Katherine Dhanani will be based in Nairobi, Kenya, like her predecessors whose job title was Special Representative.

"We're making plans to make our presence more enduring in Somalia," said the official.