Somalia's Puntland hit by violence
Malkhadir M Muhumed
Nairobi - The northeastern tip of Somalia has been a peaceful haven in an often violent nation, but a powerful warlord and a series of recent clashes are threatening to open a new zone of lawlessness.
Militants loyal to warlord Mohamed Said Atom have repeatedly clashed with government forces in recent weeks, and Atom told a local radio station that his men have retreated to their mountain hideout in Gal Gala to plan guerrilla attacks.
A UN report in March said officials had credible information that Atom has delivered arms sent by Eritrea to al-Shabaab forces in southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab is Somalia's dominant insurgent group and its members have ties with al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab has so far distanced itself from activities in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that set up its own administration in 1998. But fears are rising that the militant group could expand into the north if local authorities fail to address grievances that feed Atom's ambitions.
The warlord wants the administration to dismantle the US-backed Puntland Intelligence Service and to apply Islamic law in the region.
"Puntland is a very weak administration and if it loses the military initiative, there is a strong fear that it will have a southern-like scenario," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert with the International Crisis Group.
"Its forces are better organised than those of the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. But they can't withstand alone a determined insurgency for a long time."
Clashes between Atom's fighters and government forces began in late July, when the militants attacked Puntland forces near Atom's home base, a rugged and mountainous area about 30km outside of the region's commercial capital, Bossaso.
Puntland's security minister said his forces had killed more than 30 militants since the fighting started, a claim denied by Atom.
The March report by the UN's Monitoring Group said Atom was importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to southern Somalia.
Atom's "activities pose a growing threat to peace and security in both Puntland and Somaliland," said the report, noting that "Atom appears to be preparing to confront both the Puntland and the Somaliland authorities more directly."
Until recently Puntland was spared by the large-scale violence that has been plaguing much of Somalia's southern and central regions, where Islamist militants are trying to topple the weak, UN-backed government in Mogadishu.
Warsan Cismaan Saalax, a member of the Puntland Diaspora Forum, a group that promotes peace in the region, said the clashes between Atom and Puntland were "inevitable" because "no government will accept to have armed militiamen in its back yard."
"But to defuse the situation, a frank dialogue with Atom is needed," she said. "And to reach that stage, there must be a cease-fire first."
Since he took office in January last year, Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole has been reaching out to Islamists in his region to reduce al-Shabaab's influence.
"We have tried through his clan elders to persuade him to give up his terrorist activities but he rejected their overtures," said Puntland Security Minister Yusuf Ahmed Khayr. He said he fears Atom may start using suicide bombers.
Atom was one of nearly a dozen suspected Islamist militants in Somalia whose assets were frozen by the US Treasury Department in April. He considers Puntland officials apostates for failing to apply Islamic law, and is especially critical of the Puntland Intelligence Services, calling its members "Crusaders".
Specifics on the clashes are difficult to find. Local authorities have imposed a news blackout on reports about fighting, and a court sentenced a radio station manager to six years in prison after his station aired an interview with Atom earlier this month.
Abdi says Atom "is hijacking a long-running local feeling of marginalisation," a situation where some clans feel locked out of the running of the state's affairs.
Atom's Warsengali clan cited that lack of consultation between government and clans when they took arms up against security forces in 2006 to object to a plan to conduct surveys in the mineral-rich area of Gal Gala.
Analysts have long argued that the more the violence in the south is allowed to rage, the more the stability in the northern regions is threatened.
"It is difficult to inoculate the north from the instability and chaos in the south," said Abdi. "What we are seeing in Puntland now is a perfect example of a spill-over effect."