By William Maclean
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday that a failure to end Somalia's chaos will endanger international security, and the time is right for the outside world to help the failed state get back on its feet.
Opening a conference on ending two decades of anarchy in Somalia, Cameron said outside engagement in the country had been half-hearted because few people believed foreign powers could do anything to make a difference.
"That fatalism has failed Somalia. And it has failed the international community too. Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to change that," he told a gathering including heads of state and government from Africa and Arab states.
"These problems in Somalia don't just affect Somalia. They affect us all. In a country where there is no hope, chaos, violence and terrorism thrive. Pirates are disrupting vital trade routes and kidnapping tourists," said Cameron.
Somalia is plagued by factional and clan feuding, much of the country is controlled by Islamist rebels and pirates are seizing ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, holding the crews until they receive a ransom.
"Young minds are being poisoned by radicalism, breeding terrorism that is threatening the security of the whole world. If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so," said Cameron.
Cameron announced a number of aid and development initiatives including a proposal to set up an international taskforce on ransoms, the main tactic used by pirates.
"Let's set the ultimate ambition of stopping these payments because in the end they only ensure that crime pays," he said.
The meeting's UK organizers have tried to temper expectations, explaining that the aim of the event is to galvanize policymakers' attention on Somalia to coordinate better a sometimes disjointed international response.
Nevertheless, Somalis who have known little but war, famine and blunder-prone international intervention for decades cannot help but hope for something that will improve their lives.
"The expectations that Somalis have are huge," Mogadishu-based civic activist Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle of Somalia's Center for Research and Dialogue think tank told Reuters.
"You have so many external actors driving different agendas that it would be a success to have a unified stance. Above all we need implementation of what's agreed, as disappointed hopes will only bring more radicalization and hostility."
Somalia collapsed into feuding between rival warlords, clans and factions after president Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Up to a million people have since been killed, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The weak Western-backed interim government, which holds only a few areas, is fighting a revolt by al Shabaab militants who recently merged with al Qaeda and harbor dozens of Western volunteers seen as a threat to Western security.
Moses Wetangula, foreign minister of neighboring Kenya, told Reuters he wanted to see "a renewed and reinvigorated international commitment to Somalia."
"We hope it's not going to be the usual talking shop where we make flowery speeches and get clapped and go away without caring whether it will be followed up or not. I hope we will have a commitment to assist the warring factions in Somalia to instill a sense of peace and working together," he said.
Nairobi began a military campaign against rebels in southern Somalia last October after a series of cross-border raids by al Shabaab against targets on Kenyan soil, which threatened the east African nation's tourism business.
Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) got a boost on the eve of the conference when the U.N. Security Council voted to boost by nearly half an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, seeking to press home a military offensive against al Shabaab.
The resolution increasing the AMISOM force to 17,731 from 12,000 troops and police passed the council unanimously.
The UK Foreign Office said Thursday's meeting could build on "this good news, setting out a comprehensive international approach to Somalia covering politics, development, security, as well as our work to combat terrorism and piracy."
The force, which first entered Somalia in 2007, has claimed a series of recent successes against al Shabaab's fighters who had seized much of the country's centre and south. Last August, AMISOM wrested control of the capital, Mogadishu.
In a further setback for the rebels, Ethiopian and Somali forces captured the stronghold of Baidoa in the south on Wednesday. Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in November but will not come under AMISOM and are expected to withdraw eventually.
Diplomats say a priority is ensuring the broadest possible support for Somali constitutional discussions in the run up to the August 20 expiry of the TFG's mandate, by which time it should have enacted a new basic law and held an indirect election.
Critics say without elections, the next administration will just be Somalia's 16th transitional government since 1991.
A senior U.S. official told reporters travelling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the United States may slap travel restrictions on Somalis in and outside the TFG, as well as possibly on citizens of neighboring nations, who obstruct the political reforms.
"We would contemplate imposing ... travel restrictions and visa bans on individuals who serve as spoilers in the political process," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Somalia expert Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council said similar conferences in the past had pretended that "Somalia is still a state when it has long ceased to be one."
"The only result this has produced is to incentivize the rent-seeking behavior and corruption of so-called officials incapable of restoring a modicum of security and governance ... What is needed is a 'bottom-up' approach."
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Peter Apps, Jonathan Saul, Richard Lough, Patrick Worsnip, Arshad Mohammed; editing by David Stamp)