Oct 2, 2007

Fighting in Sool region between Puntland and Somaliland

Somaliland and Puntland forces have clashed in northern Somalia fighting for control over the city of Las Anod, the capital of Sool region. In the past two weeks, Somaliland forces have started moving towards the city from the west. Puntland reinforcements came from the south and the two forces clashed about 18km west of the city, exchanging artillery fires before clashing two days ago.

There were reports that Puntland forces pulled back to about 6km from Las Anod but the city remains under Puntland control (despite Somaliland claims of otherwise). Somaliland-based telco companies supplied most telephone lines in the city, they were all cut off yesterday.

Sool region has been the safest in Somalia for the last 15 years or so even though both Puntland and Somaliland claimed the region. In 1991, Somaliland declared independence and claimed the region formerly colonized by Britian (British Somaliland Protectorate). The north-west is mostly Isaq tribe and Dhulbahante tribe (a branch of Darood) in the north-east, these are the two largest tribes in norther Somalia.

There's a historical context to the current conflict that dates back to colonial era. During the British colonial period, Dhulbahante tribe fiercely fought the British forces under the movement called Darawish, though later defeated they have never accepted the British rule. Isaq tribe, on the other hand, supported and fought alongside the British. The two tribes Dhulbahante tribe never accepted the idea of separating from the rest of Somalia.

But 1998 Dhulbahante tribal elders together with
Majeerteen and Warsangeli to the east formed Puntland, a state that does not declare independence from the rest of Somalia. These three tribes are from a branch of Darood tribe called Harti. Subsequently, Sool and Sanaag regions became part of Puntland, though the capital city of Sanaag is still under Somaliland control. But some Dhulbahante continued to take part in Somaliland government.

The creation of Puntland was a major blow for Somaliland's quest for independence as a large junk of the land it claimed was now part of Puntland. The first president of Somaliland,
Ibrahim Cigaal never visited Las Anood since Somaliland was created but his predecessor Riyaale Kahin attempted to visit the city few years ago, his convoy was ambushed and he was nearly killed. The people region are almost entirely in support of Puntland.

Ethiopia is the main power-broker in northern Somalia, both Puntland and Somaliland are heavily dependent on their relationship with the Ethiopian regime. Earlier this year, more than five thousand Puntland forces went to the south to fight the Islamic Courts alongside Ethiopian troops, Ethiopia in turn pressured Somaliland not to attack Puntland. But few months later, Somaliland forces went deep into Puntland territory attacking Dhahar, a small town in Sanaag region but they were swiftly pushed back and the Somaliland defense minister was sacked.

While Somaliland would like to control Sool and Sanaag to bolster its claim for independence, their leaders realize that the majority of the population in these two regions support Puntland, therefore occasionally stirring the situation is enough for them. But this particular clash has wider implications. This could lead to a tribal war between Dhulbahante and Isaq. It could also prompt Puntland to return its forces from the south making the situation in the north more volatile.

Somaliland has been wary of the Transitional National Government (TFG) too. Somaliland politicians realize that international support for the TFG dwindles their chances of gaining recognition. The current president of the TFG is from Puntland and the former prime minister of the previous government - prior to the Islamic Courts - was from the now disputed city of Las Anod.

Certainly the next few days will see more fighting though the city is like to remain under Puntland control. The president of the TFG Abdullahi Yusuf continues to have strong influence in Puntland, how he will react to these latest clashes will greatly determine the events in the coming few days.

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