MOGADISHU — Somali leaders began gathering Sunday for a three-day national reconciliation conference under UN auspices amid high security in war-shattered Mogadishu.
African Union peacekeepers deployed around the parliament talks venue in the capital only recently vacated by Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents seeking to overthrow the fragile UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
A key focus will be on winding up the seven-year-old transitional administration, which has failed to deliver on its top objective of reconciling the country, writing a new constitution and holding elections.
Sunday's talks were also to include representatives of the breakaway Puntland region and other semi-autonomous territories.
"Most of the delegates have reached Mogadishu including those from the regional administrations like Puntland, Galmudug and Ahlusuna-Waljameca, but there are some technical delays this morning as some officials are still awaited to reach the conference hall," lawmaker Mohamed Abdi told AFP.
"There are ministers and lawmakers in the transitional government that are attending the conference who have already reached the hall, I think the conference will officially kick off sometime in the afternoon," he said.
However, neither Somaliland, which broke away in 1991, nor the Shebab insurgents, which retreated from Mogadishu last month but remain in control of most of the south and centre of the country, are being represented at the talks.
Somalia has been in a state of almost constant civil war since the overthrow of president Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago, despite several internationally-backed attempts to install a central authoritity.
The TFG itself has had two presidents and five prime ministers since its inauguration in 2004.
None of Somalia's interim governments have ever been able to extend their authority nationwide due to complex clan politics and internecine feuds.
UN special representative for Somalia Augustine Mahiga told reporters in Nairobi last week that the time has come to end the transition government and that this had been accepted by the Somali leadership and people.
"Change has to come," he said.
The talks, which are scheduled to run through Tuesday, will focus on improving security, national reconciliation, a new constitution, governance and parliamentary reforms.
"We want to achieve what we have not achieved in the past seven years," said Mahiga.
The current president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, visited the conference venue on Saturday, telling reporters: "We are very much delighted to witness that Somalia is for the first time sorting its problems out...."
The mandate of the Somali government was to end last month, but Sharif and the parliament speaker signed an agreement in June in Kampala extending their mandates by a year.
Parliament earlier this year unilaterally extended its mandate for three years.
Running the Somali government costs donors between $50 and $100 million dollars a year, while the 9,000-strong African Union force protecting it costs some $400 million per year.
The conflict in Somalia has worsened the humanitarian consequences of drought across the Horn of Africa, which the United Nations says is the worst in decades.
The UN has declared a famine in several regions of the country and said on Saturday that the situation in the country was worsening, and that almost all the regions in the south could face famine. Half of the 10 million population needs food aid.