REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Seventeen years ago, a humiliated U.N. peacekeeping mission left the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after a failed intervention to stem the country's spiral into chaos and civil war.
Dozens of efforts to set up a Somali government since then have also failed. But the special envoy for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, arrived in Mogadishu on Tuesday, establishing a U.N. presence there for first time since 1995.
His arrival signaled the U.N.'s biggest vote of confidence so far in the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which now controls Mogadishu with the support of African Union forces.
The U.N.-backed government is supposed to implement a road map to elections in August -- and perhaps end the long cycle of clan violence, chaos and war.
"It is historic to bring the U.N. back to Somalia," Mahiga said in a speech upon his arrival. "The secretary-general told me I should go and join you to make the road map a reality."
He bore a letter from U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon to hand to the Somali president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. He later called on U.N. agencies and countries to set up offices in the capital.
Western diplomatic officials have been making unannounced low-key visits to Somalia for some time, particularly since the militant Islamist group the Shabab abandoned Mogadishu. But kidnappings remain a serious threat for Westerners. The most recent victim was an American engineer kidnapped Saturday in the central town of Galkayo.
Despite the envoy's call for countries to resume normal operations in Mogadishu, there remain many barriers to Somali peace, not least the Shabab, which controls the south and has expelled several humanitarian agencies. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was the largest humanitarian agency distributing food in Shabab-controlled areas hit by famine, recently suspended operations in the south.
A quarter of a million lives remain at risk in the south.
Kenya and Ethiopia invaded Somalia late last year in a bid to defeat the Shabab after the group withdrew from Mogadishu in August.
The Shabab has since put its energy into guerrilla attacks, suicide bombings and ambushes, including attacks on students hoping to win scholarships to study abroad. The latest attack came Tuesday when a Shabab suicide bomber drove a minivan loaded with explosives to an Ethiopian base in the central Somali town of Beledweyne.
There was no confirmation of casualties Tuesday, although the Shabab claimed to have killed 33 Ethiopian soldiers and wounded dozens more.
[For the record, 2:36 p.m. Jan. 24. An earlier version of this post said the suicide bombing attack in Beledweyne occurred Monday. It happened Tuesday.]
Photo: U.N. special envoy Augustine Mahiga arrives at the U.N. mission's headquarters in Mogadishu on Tuesday. Credit: Stuart Price / AFP/Getty Images