Tension surrounds Somaliland

2008-10-30 14:00

Hargeysa - Somaliland was considered a safe haven, but Somalis who fled Mogadishu to find shelter here fear for their security, with some local residents blaming them on Thursday for deadly suicide bombings.

Three simultaneous suicide car bombs struck the presidential palace, the United Nations Development Programme's compound and Ethiopia's diplomatic representation in the town early Wednesday - an unprecedented event in this breakaway statelet.

At least 19 people died on the spot, in addition to the three bombers. One of the injured also died of his wounds overnight, medical sources and local officials said.

"We don't know the reason why those attackers targeted our town, but it is a clear message to the people of Somaliland and I hope we will take appropriate measures," said Abdiweli Ise, a trader from Hargeysa.

Until now, the semi-autonomous northern territory of Somaliland has been spared the daily violence pitting Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces against Islamist insurgents, and residents were in shock on Thursday.

Refuge of choice

"It seems that hellfire has struck Somaliland. They have destroyed and taken the lives of many in southern Somalia and now they're doing the same in Hargeysa," said Abdinur Moalim Warfa, a barber.

The neighbourhood that was targeted on Wednesday was sealed off and Hargeysa woke up to a massive security deployment across the city and dozens of checkpoints which were erected in the streets to screen vehicles.

Somaliland has a homogenous clan base and is relatively prosperous compared to the neighbouring breakaway Somali region of Puntland and Somalia proper. That makes it a refuge of choice for the thousands of civilians recently displaced by fighting in Mogadishu.

Many of the displaced fled daily mortar shelling, street fighting, raids, racketing and an ever-deepening humanitarian disaster.

Now the suspicion is that the perpetrators of Wednesday's bombings were hiding in their midst.

"I can't mention how much I'm worried today. The attacks bear the hallmarks of those carried out in Mogadishu by the Islamists," said Ali Hasan Ahmed, a Hargeysa refugee who recently fled the bloodshed in Mogadishu.

"Somaliland believes that such attacks could only have been masterminded by people from southern Somalia," he explained.

"We have not left our homes since yesterday... because we are afraid of revenge attacks by the locals who think that the people from southern Somalia are behind the attacks," said Halimo Maow, a mother of four.

"My sister was verbally abused by some neighbours. They insulted her and called her a terrorist from Mogadishu, shouting 'You people came here and brought violence with you!'," she added.

She said that dozens of angry residents had gathered around her sister before police arrived and dispersed the mob.

Somaliland officials, government and opposition alike, were unanimous in condemning the attacks, which many saw as an attempt to undermine the region's fledgling statehood by disrupting preparations for the 2009 polls.

'We will not be intimidated'

"It was not Islamic behaviour, the terrorists are now striking our integrity and stability, they are also trying to derail the democratic electoral process in Somaliland," said Feisal Ali Warabe, chairperson of Somaliland's opposition UCID party.

"But we will not be intimidated by their terror attacks," he said. "We call on the local people not to harm innocent displaced people from southern Somalia instead of those un-Islamic terrorists who attacked us."

Islamist insurgents in central and southern Somalia are believed to have resorted to suicide attacks against Ethiopian troops before, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday's attacks.

While Hargeysa was being attacked, a pair of suicide car bombs also targeted two anti-terrorism centres in Puntland's economic capital of Bosasso. Puntland authorities said on Thursday the two suicide bombers had been trained by al-Qaeda.