Nairobi: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday threw her support behind Somalia`s embattled president and warned Eritrea to stop sponsoring Al-Qaeda inspired insurgents turning the country into a terror hub.
Clinton held the highest-level US meeting yet with Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, whom she called the best hope of stabilising a nation torn by conflict for nearly two decades and now facing a deadly insurgency.
Clinton said she offered "very strong support" to Sharif and was ready to meet his requests for unspecified assistance. President Barack Obama`s administration has been sending Sharif urgent supplies of arms and ammunition.
She also issued a strong warning to Eritrea, which Washington and its African allies say is funding the Shebab, an Al Qaeda-inspired movement spearheading a three-month-old offensive to topple Sharif.
"It is long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support of Al-Shebab and to start being a productive rather than a destabilising neighbour," Clinton told a joint news conference with Sharif.
US officials have warned of possible sanctions and some US lawmakers have pressed for the Washington to put Eritrea on a blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
Clinton expressed fear that Shebab would turn Somalia into an extremist haven similar to the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which has been a top priority for the Obama administration.
"There is also no doubt that Al-Shebab wants to obtain control of Somalia to use it as a base from which to influence and even infiltrate surrounding countries and launch attacks against countries far and near," she said.
"Certainly if Al-Shebab were to obtain a haven in Somalia which could then attract Al-Qaeda and other terrorist actions, it would be a threat to the United States."
Sharif, a young Islamist cleric, was at the forefront of the armed resistance against the 2006 military invasion of Somalia by US allies Ethiopia but has since joined a UN-sponsored reconciliation process and is perceived to be occupying the country`s political middle ground.
Besides his words, observers were also keenly watching his demeanour with Clinton -- specifically, whether he would shake hands. Some hardline Muslims frown on any physical contact between unmarried men and women.
Clinton, leaving the news conference, offered Sharif her hand and shook it robustly. Pressed later by a Somali reporter about the handshake, Sharif said, "I don`t think it`s a problem."
Sharif said he made requests at the meeting but declined to go into specifics.
"There were promises on the security front, on the humanitarian front and for the people injured in the fighting," Sharif said.
"If these promises materialise, they will be very helpful to the people of Somalia," he said.
Sharif defended cooperation with the US, saying: "Somalia needs to have relationships in order to lift the Somali people out of the difficult situation we`ve found ourselves on."
Somalia has long bedevilled US leaders. Clinton`s husband, former president Bill Clinton, hastily ended a humanitarian mission shipping food to the country after an intense 1993 battle with a warlord killed nearly two dozen US and coalition troops and hundreds of Somalis.
Clinton started the day by laying flowers at the US embassy in a tribute to the victims of the twin bombings of the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam embassies that killed 224 people 11 years ago Friday.
Experts fear that Somalia could become a haven for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups if Sharif is not actively strengthened by his international partners.
"If the international community doesn`t fully understand the threat, the end game will be `96 all over again, the year the Taliban entered Kabul," one diplomat said.
Later in the day Clinton will fly to South Africa, her second stop on a seven-nation tour of Africa that is her longest trip since becoming the top US diplomat six months ago.
In South Africa, she will also take on another hotspot by seeking African pressure on Zimbabwe`s President Robert Mugabe to institute democratic and economic reforms.