Britain will seek to build consensus on measures to tackle instability and piracy in Somalia, such as improved humanitarian aid and economic support, when it hosts a major international conference next February.

The meeting, to be hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron, will be held on February 23 in London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday.

Now is the time, we believe, to seek intensified international action on Somalia, Hague told parliament. That country is a scene of great human suffering, but is also a base of piracy and terrorism, which exacerbate the country's plight and threaten our own security.

A fleet of foreign naval vessels patrols strategic sea lanes off Somalia, where pirates prey on commercial vessels and private yachts and hold them for ransom.

Cameron announced last month that British merchant ships sailing off the coast of Somalia would be able to carry armed guards to ward off pirate attacks, bringing it into line with many other countries.

The prime minister has described the east African nation as a failed state that directly threatens British interests, citing attacks on tourists and aid workers, and radicalisation of young Britons by militant Islamists with roots in the region.

Hague told parliament on Monday that tens of thousands of Somalis had died in recent months, while a million were internally displaced and faced the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

He called for a wide-ranging approach to undermine al Shabaab rebels and tackle piracy, coupled with economic support, humanitarian aid and assistance to the African Union mission in Somalia, AMISOM.

The aim of our conference in London in February will be to build agreement on such a reinforced international approach, he said.

The high-level conference is expected to gather regional players, as well as representatives from the United States and other countries, a government source said.

Somalia was formed in 1960 from a former British protectorate and an Italian colony. It descended into chaos after the 1991 fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. The government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed holds sway in the capital Mogadishu, but al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels control much of the rest of the country.

(Reporting by Adrian Croft and Tim Castle; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)