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Somalia swears in formal parliament on home soil

For the first time in two decades, a formal Somali parliament was sworn in on home soil at a ceremony at Mogadishu Airport. It is the latest bid to end two decades of instability in the war-torn country.

Due to fears of attacks by Islamist militant groups such as al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, the parliamentarians were sworn in on the tarmac in the capital Mogadishu's heavily fortified airport zone under the protection of African Union (AU) troops.

The parliament was the first to be sworn in on Somalian soil in more than 20 years. The Horn of Africa nation has not had a stable central government since former president Siad Barre was killed in 1991.

"Somalis have been through over 20 years of chaos ... people are ready for a new day in Somalia," said Hussein Arab Isse, a lawmaker and defense minister in the previous government.

The swearing-in was the culmination of a UN-backed process in which lawmakers were chosen by a group of 135 traditional elders. The ceremony officially brought an end to Somalia's transitional government after eight years of political infighting.

The process of forming a new government was hailed as an "unprecedented opportunity for greater peace and stability," said a joint statement from the UN, AU, United States and European Union issued on Sunday.

"The conclusion of the transition should mark the beginning of more representative government in Somalia," leaders wrote in the statement, which was also signed by Norway, Turkey and East Africa's main diplomatic body, IGAD, among others.

The airport where the swearing-in ceremony was held adjoins the base for the almost 17,000-strong AU force, which has propped up Somalia's Western-backed leadership against attacks by al-Shabaab.

No presidential election yet

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia

Islamist group al-Shabaab has been linked to al Qaeda

While the ceremony was hailed as a success by some, others took a far gloomier outlook, suggesting it offers little but a reshuffling of political positions for a nation that also suffers from rampant corruption.

"Whilst parliament remains a selected rather than elected body, it is essential that it cuts its ties with the past of self-interest and warlordism," the international statement said.

Also, there was no clear time-frame for when voting for key positions - first for parliament speaker, then for president - would take place.

"The presidential elections will not be held today," said lawmaker Aweys Qarni. "The election committee must still be convened ... There is still work to go before the presidential elections."

Outgoing Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in power since 2009, is considered one of the favorites for the job, though he is a controversial figure among some Western observers.

A July UN report said that under Sharif's presidency, "systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft of public money have become government systems." Sharif has rejected the claims.

Over a dozen candidates are expected to run for the presidency. Voting will be held by secret ballot, with up to four rounds possible to select the president. In addition to Sharif, Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and outgoing parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan are also thought to be contenders.

In this photo taken Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011, Somali refugees collect water at the Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Somali border.

More than 400,000 Somalis live in this refugee camp outside Dadaab, Kenya

Massive problems, some progress

Without a central government since 1991, several issues plague Somalia. Piracy is a serious concern along the coast, where hundreds of foreign nationals and ships have been held for ransom. In mid-2011, a famine resulted from the worst drought in East Africa in more than 60 years, killing tens of thousands.

Past efforts to restore peace in Somalia have had mixed results. A US-led offensive to remove local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1993 ended in disaster, with Aidid escaping and 19 American troops and more than 1,000 civilians and militia slain.

According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy in Somalia is just 50.8 years - the seventh-lowest in the world.

Yet progress has been made recently, with improved security in the capital and large numbers of Somalis returning to their homeland from places such as Kenya, Europe and the United States.

A military offensive by the AU, Somali and Ethiopian troops has driven al-Shabaab from several key bases in recent months, but fighters have also staged a string of guerrilla attacks.

bm/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)