BRUSSELS — Somalia's foreign minister urged the international community Wednesday to help its fledgling government set up a coast guard to fight the rampant piracy that has disrupted shipping in one of the world's busiest waterways.
"We will be establishing a coast guard because this is essential for the establishment of the rule of law, both along the coastline and in Somali waters," Foreign Minister Mohamed Omaar told The Associated Press in an interview.
Omaar was in Brussels for an international conference sponsored by the United Nations and the European Union that aimed to raise at least euro128 million ($166 million) in donations for Somalia's nascent security forces and for the African Union peacekeeping contingent there.
The meeting opens later Wednesday and continues Thursday under the auspices of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European Union leaders.
The plan is to strengthen government authority over the lawless east African nation, including its pirate strongholds, and thus prevent attacks on shipping in the busy sea lanes around the Horn of Africa. However, even as Somalia pushed for more naval resources, that issue has not been on the agenda so far of the international donors, who have concentrated on land forces.
"This is the most important conference that has been devoted to Somalia in the past 10-15 years," Omaar said, adding that a future donors' conference on reconstruction will deal with institution-building and improving the livelihood of the Somali people.
Pirate gangs operating along Somalia's 1,900-mile-long (3,100-kilometer) coastline have become increasingly audacious over the past two years, hijacking dozens of merchant ships and their crews to earn ransoms that can top $1 million per ship.
So far the government has not dared go after the pirate strongholds, since pirate leaders have more power than the beleaguered Somali government.
The European Union said Wednesday it would contribute euro60 million ($77.6 million) to help boost security in Somalia.
Representatives of the African Union, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and three dozen interested countries also will attend Thursday's meeting, as will the commanders of the African Union force and the EU flotilla combating piracy off the Somali coast.
Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991, has been embroiled in a series of conflicts which have forced 1.2 million people to flee their homes. Its Western-backed government wields little control outside the capital of Mogadishu, and needs help from African peacekeepers to do even that.
President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, elected by parliament in January, is a former fighter with the Islamic insurgency that is trying to overthrow the government despite signing a peace deal last year. He has been trying to broker peace with warring groups and gain legitimacy after years of chaos.
The African Union force consists of 4,350 troops from Uganda and Burundi, but efforts are under way to ensure a full complement of 8,000 troops by next January. The U.N. will provide logistic support, but the force still needs armored personnel carriers, personal protective gear and tents.
Ahmed's government wants to build up Somalia's police force to about 10,000 officers, along with a separate security force of 6,000 members.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Ban recommended that the Security Council reject an immediate U.N. peacekeeping force for Somalia, warning that deploying international troops now could exacerbate the country's long and bitter conflict.
In a report to the council, Ban said a peacekeeping operation "should remain the United Nations goal."
But he said achieving that goal will require significant progress in promoting political reconciliation and restoring peace in Somalia after 18 years of anarchy, and in building up Somalia's own security institutions, police and military forces.
In a related development, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged other European countries to join French troops in training Somali security forces to fight piracy and terrorism.
In a column in Wednesday's Le Figaro newspaper, Kouchner said that international naval efforts to protect ships from pirates are not enough to secure the region, and that more must be done to shore up Somalia's government.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.