MOGADISHU, Somalia, March 1 (UPI) -- After two decades of incessant clan warfare, lawless, divided and poverty-stricken Somalia appears to be on the cusp of becoming an oil state, a transition that many fear could plunge the world's most failed state into new paroxysms of violence.
Britain is leading the charge to stake its claim on the energy riches oilmen say lies beneath the sands of the Horn of Africa country.
Some analysts warn that exploiting oil in the autonomous northwestern enclave of Puntland, and believed to extend across the ravaged country, will intensify the conflict rather than act as a catalyst for peace.
Somalia has been without a central government since clan warlords overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.
In the chaos that ensued, the country was split between constantly changing clan rivalries. A seemingly endless war and a series of famines killed hundreds of thousands of people.
After a disastrous U.N. intervention in the early 1990s, the world largely ignored the savagery tearing resource-poor Somalia.
But in the last few years, major oil and natural gas discoveries have been made across the entire East Africa region, from the Horn of Africa in the northeast, down to Tanzania and Mozambique in the south, and inland in Uganda and the Democratic republic of Congo around Lake Albert.
Estimates of Somalia's reserves, onshore and offshore, go as high as 110 billion barrels of oil.
There's also likely to be vast natural gas reserves in Somali waters in the Indian Ocean. Fields containing an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of gas have been found off Mozambique and Tanzania.
British Prime Minister David Cameron convened an international conference on Somalia in London last week as all this unfolded. That came soon after a surprise visit to the country by Foreign Secretary William Hague, the first British official of that rank to do so since 1992.
Hague talked of "the beginning of an opportunity" to rebuild the war-shattered country.
While in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, he named a new British ambassador to Somalia, who'll be based in Kenyan until the Somali security situation improves.
The London conference pledged greater economic and financial aid for Somalia and intensified efforts to restore security, primarily by crushing al-Shabaab, an Islamist movement battling the Federal Transitional Government, an inept, corruption-plagued administration backed by the West.
The Western effort followed an announcement by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahari that al-Shabaab had formally joined the global jihadist network.
That came as al-Shabaab, recently driven out of Mogadishu by an African Union force funded by the United States, was being increasingly squeezed on all sides by the 10,000-strong AU peacekeeping force and invading Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, discreetly supported by the Americans, who sought to aid the TFG.
This renewed commitment to restoring stability in Somalia hasn't officially been linked to the discovery of oil there.
But London's Observer newspaper reported Sunday, "Britain is involved in a secret high-stakes dash for oil in Somalia, with the government offering humanitarian aid and security assistance in the hope of a stake in the beleaguered country's future energy industry …
"Talks are going on between British officials and Somali counterparts over exploiting oil reserves in the northeastern region."
Puntland Minister for International Cooperation Abdulkadir Abdi Hashi said his government had approached BP as a partner.
Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said Puntland had little choice but to lure Western oil companies by offering them access to the country's natural resources, which also include uranium.
But analysts fear the London conference is on dangerous ground.
"By raising expectations and setting a timetable and target for political reform, security assistance and regional collaboration that are unlikely to be met, Britain and its partners risk making a bad situation worse," observed British international affairs expert Simon Tisdall.
"Without determined follow-through, these good intentions could open the way to greater human suffering, increased foreign military intervention and, ultimately, partition -- presaging the definitive disintegration of Somalia as a sovereign state."
In January, the Canadian wildcatter Africa Oil began the first drilling in Somalia in 21 years and made strikes in Puntland.
It estimates there could be reserves of up to 4 billion barrels, worth about $500 billion at today's prices, in its two drilling blocks alone.