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U.S., citing new hope for Somalia, to name Somalia ambassador

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, seeing new hope for Somalia, will appoint a new ambassador to Mogadishu for the first time since closing its embassy there 23 years ago as the East African country descended into chaos, a senior U.S. government official said on Tuesday.

Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, didn't specify exactly when the ambassador would be named, but said it would be "soon."

There were hopeful signs of improvement in the security and economic conditions in the country, following years when Somalia had become "a synonym for chaos," she said at the United States Institute of Peace think tank in Washington.

"As a reflection both of our deepening relationship with the country and of our faith that better times are ahead, the president will propose the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia in more than two decades," Sherman said.

A U.S. diplomat based in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, who traveled sporadically to Mogadishu, has represented U.S. interests in Somalia. A State Department official said the new ambassador would not yet be based permanently in Mogadishu.

Mentioning recent attacks in Somalia and neighboring Kenya by the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group al Shabaab, Sherman said there was still a tough struggle to secure the country and rebuild its government, economy and infrastructure.

"The path ahead remains rocky and uphill," she said, adding that now was the best time in a quarter of a century to start realizing the post-independence hopes of the former Italian colony for peace and prosperity.

Discussing the U.S. commitment to Somalia's security, she said "a small contingent of U.S. military personnel, including some special operations forces, have been present in parts of Somalia for several years."

Their aim had been to work with Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, providing information and advice on fighting al Shabaab.

Sherman noted there had been a number of direct U.S. military strikes on militant targets, but didn't specify whether they were drone strikes.

"From time-to-time the U.S. military has conducted such action in Somalia against a limited number of targets who ... have been determined to be part of al Qaeda," she said.

These may continue in the future if it was established that there was a "continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons."

(The story Corrects to say the United States is appointing an ambassador, not reopening the embassy, in headline and paragraphs 1,2,5)

(Reporting by David Storey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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