By Aaron Maasho and Richard Lough
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Somalia's central government agreed on Wednesday to recognize a former Islamist commander as the interim leader of the southern Juba region, a deal that should help end months of clan fighting and could cement plans for a federal nation.
Diplomats said the pact signed in Ethiopia's capital, after days of talks and delays, was a significant step towards stabilizing Somalia as it seeks to create devolved government and could become a blueprint for sharing power in other areas.
An official from Mogadishu's government signed the deal with Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, who has been vying for control of Jubaland's port city of Kismayu and its hinterland against a clan warlord widely seen as backed by Mogadishu.
"We are hopeful that this process will be a starting point for Somalia to be a federal state," Madobe said at the signing, through a translator. "There will be people who won't be happy, but the fundamental issue is the interest of the Somali people."
At the heart of the tussle over Kismayu has been control of the area's economic resources, in particular its lucrative port.
The fate of Somalia's second biggest city has been seen as a litmus test for the future of the Horn of Africa nation as it rebuilds from the ruins of war and anchor a wobbly peace.
That quest has been hampered by the central government's weakness outside the capital and its troubled relations with provinces seeking more autonomy than it has been ready to cede.
"This is really a breakthrough in a problem that has dogged the country for at least a year now," said Nick Kay, the U.N. special representative for Somalia, who was in Addis Ababa.
"It opens the door now for political progress across the whole of Somalia," he said.
Under the terms of Wednesday's deal, Madobe will be leader of the interim Juba Administration for a period of two years.
The authority under his control will manage the port for six months after which control will shift to the federal government, although revenues will pay for services in the Juba region.
(Reporting by Aaron Maasho and Richard Lough; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)