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GENEVA (Reuters) - Somalis may soon be receiving letters from abroad for the first time in more than 20 years after a deal was struck with the United Nations' postal agency, the latest step towards ending Somalia's isolation following two decades of civil conflict.
But the challenges to bringing the Horn of Africa country back into the global postal community are manifold - there are no functioning post offices, only the main roads are named and most houses do not have a number.
Add to that the ongoing struggle with al Qaeda-linked insurgents, who still control much of the countryside, and parts of the coastline infested with pirates, and it is clear the U.N.'s Universal Postal Union (UPU) and its partners have their work cut out.
The Swiss-based UPU said in a statement on Friday that international postal services could start operating again in Somalia within the next few months.
Somalia's Minister of Information and Communication Abdullahi Hirsi signed a memorandum of understanding with Emirates Post Group this week for Dubai to act as a hub for handling mail destined for Somalia, it said.
The UPU, which brokered the deal, said its 192 member countries could resume sending mail to Somalia once the arrangements were finalised.
About 2 million Somalis live abroad and 9.9 million in Somalia, served by a postal network that is "basically inexistant", the UPU said, having dwindled from 100 post offices in 1991.
UPU spokesman Rheal LeBlanc said Somalia had created an office at the airport to handle mail moving in and out of the country, initially to service the government, embassies and universities, "but they seem to have plans to phase in postal services across the country over the next few months and years".
Hirsi said his country would need help getting the post going again.
"We ask for all means of assistance as we have to start from ground zero," the UPU statement quoted him as saying.
In the latest sign of optimism that Somalia was emerging from its violent recent past, Britain opened an embassy at Mogadishu airport on Thursday after its previous mission closed in 1991 as civil war broke out.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Mike Collett-White)