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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama determined on Monday that Somalia may receive U.S. military assistance, a step seen as a sign of improving relations with a country grappling to contain militants linked to al Qaeda.

Obama issued a memo to Secretary of State John Kerry that said Somalia is eligible for "defense articles and defense services" under U.S. arms export and foreign aid laws.

Security in the Somali capital of Mogadishu has improved since the Islamist group al Shabaab fled the city after a military offensive in August 2011. Bombings and assassinations are still frequent.

A senior Obama administration official said the aid authorization reflects a move by the United States toward more normal relations with Somalia.

"It is not based on any particular new threat assessment or any specific plans to undertake action," the official said.

Obama's order is an initial step that allows Kerry to consider providing defense aid to Somalia.

"It does not constitute a decision to provide particular assistance or to change the nature or our assistance for Somalia's security sector," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.

The United Nations Security Council last month partially lifted an arms embargo on Somalia to strengthen government forces fighting al Shabaab militants, which have been linked to al Qaeda.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said on March 28 that his government expects to receive its first shipment of light weapons within two months. Heavy weapons are still banned under the remaining U.N. arms embargo on Somalia.

The United States formally recognized Mohamud's government on January 17, the first time Washington has recognized a Somali government since 1991.

Fighting between U.S. forces and Somali militia in 1993 proved disastrous for the Americans, resulting in 18 dead. The battle was chronicled in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

(Reporting By Steve Holland. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)

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