|UN ambassador Augustine Mahiga (second left) moved to Mogadishu for the first time in 17 years [Reuters]
The UN special envoy to Somalia moved to Mogadishu for the first time in 17 years, signalling international support for a government fight against Islamist rebels and preparations for elections this year.
High-level officials from the UN have been based in neighbouring Kenya since 1995 because of security concerns, although its Political Office for Somalia had a few officers in the Somali capital.
Al-Shabab fighters withdrew from most of their bases in Mogadishu last August after sustained pressure from Somali and African Union troops, but violence still grips many parts of the country.
UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, arrived on Tuesday at the airport in Mogadishu, where the UN flag was raised.
Mahiga was due to meet President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and African Union force officials.
The UN said the move showed its commitment to supporting Somali leaders who adopted a political roadmap in September that is meant to lead to parliamentary and presidential elections in August, ending a series of fragile transitional governments.
"It is historic to bring the UN back to Somalia. The secretary-general told me I should go and join you to make the roadmap a reality," Mahiga said as he handed a letter from UN chief Ban Ki-moon to the Somali president.
Speaking in the presidency later, where Somali men performed a traditional dance, Mahiga called on UN agencies and other countries to send their representatives to be based in Somalia.
Somalia descended into chaos in 1991 after dictator Siad Barre was ousted. The first internationally backed transitional government was established in 2004 only to lose control to rebels and semi-autonomous administrations.
Al-Shabab, who control many parts of southern and central Somalia, have been able to launch guerrilla-style attacks in the capital despite a Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali offensive.
On Tuesday, an al Shabaab fighter rammed a minibus loaded with explosives into a government building in Baladwayne, a town in central Somalia about 45km from Ethiopia.
"A minibus carrying explosives entered Baladwayne administration headquarters compound. Government soldiers tried to stop it by firing but all in vain," Hussein Aden, a senior military official, told the Reuters news agency by phone.
Aden said there was no immediate report of casualties and the area surrounding the compound had been sealed off.
Aden Abdulle, head of a armed group fighting alongside Somali and Ethiopian soldiers against al Shabaab, said the building housed Transitional Federal Government lawmakers and Ethiopian and Somali government soldiers.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.
"We carried the car bomb successfully into the Ethiopian and Somali base in Baladwayne this morning. Our brave driver is martyred. There we killed many Ethiopian and Somali troops on a parade," Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab said.
Al-Shabab said in a statement it had killed 33 Ethiopian soldiers and wounded at least 72. There was no immediate comment from Addis Ababa.