Violence has erupted in a city at the centre of a dispute between Somalia’s semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland regions.
24 February 2023
By Mohammed Haji
A woman and child relax next to a mural of Somaliland's flag, in Hargeisa, Somaliland, a semi-autonomous breakaway region of Somalia, on Feb. 9, 2022. Brian Inganga/Copyright 2022 The AP.
Since February 6, there has been heavy fighting in the northern Somali city of Las Anod (Laascaanood) between troops of Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland and local militia from the Dhulbahante clan in northern Somalia.
So far, at least 82 people have died and 400 have been wounded.
But what exactly is the issue?
How did it all begin?
The Dhulbahante clan lives in the regions of Sool, Sanaag as well as the district of Buuhoodle in the Togdheer region, all of which are disputed between Somaliland – which seceded from Somalia in 1991 – and Puntland.
Las Anod, the capital of the Sool region, is also claimed by the clan as its capital.
Somaliland claims the borders of the old British Somaliland protectorate which merged with what was known as Italian Somaliland in the 1960s to form Somalia.
In 1991, after clan militias overthrew Siad Barre, Somalia’s military ruler at the time, the country descended into prolonged conflict, and Somaliland proclaimed its secession.
Before 2007, when Somaliland seized Las Anod, it was administered by Puntland.
The current upheaval in Las Anod began on December 26 when a local opposition politician, Abdifatah Abdullahi Abdi, was assassinated by unknown attackers, sparking anti-government protests across the city.
Unverified footage on social media during the protests showed Somaliland’s security forces indiscriminately firing at demonstrators. Local reports say as may as 20 people were killed during these initial protests in December that spilled over into January.
Somaliland’s troops have since been stationed outside the city, which has since remained under the control of a local committee of 33 elders of the Dhulbahante clan.
What is at stake here?
After years of debate, Dhulbahante elders in Sool announced on February 6 that they would like to be independent of both administrations and form their own federal state under Somalia, named SSC-Khaatumo.
“We have decided that the Federal Republic of Somalia shall administer the SSC-Khaatumo region until the completion of the federalisation of Somalia’s land,” they said in a statement, quoting the Somali constitution.
Just before the declaration was to be released, forces from Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, reportedly attacked Las Anod and forces loyal to the clans fought back.
“We believe Somaliland had received some information of the details of the declaration in advance which they didn’t receive well,” Garad Mukhtar, one of the elders at the conference, told Al Jazeera. “We strongly believe the attack was their attempt to disrupt the meeting.”
Markus Hoehne, a social anthropologist at the University of Leipzig who conducted research in Somaliland for many years, told Al Jazeera, “Somaliland needs the land [not the people] to establish its claim to statehood, which is based on colonial boundaries.”
“Puntland’s claim rests on kinship ties with clans from the region and adherence to unity,” Faisal Roble, Horn of Africa political analyst and principal city planner for Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera.
What has the damage been so far?
In addition to deaths and injuries, the United Nations estimated that more than 185,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict in Las Anod.
“Somaliland must withdraw its forces from Sool and have immediate negotiations with the traditional elders of the Dhulbahante clan in order to facilitate international aid,” Hoehne told Al Jazeera.
Abdirizak Shuriye, a doctor at Manhal Hospital in Las Anod, told Al Jazeera that hospitals and ambulances have been shelled, resulting in the deaths of medical personnel, pregnant women and children.
“What is happening in the city of Las Anod is a massacre,” he added.
On February 8, Abdirihin Ismail, the city’s mayor, said, “This isn’t a war between Somaliland and Puntland nor between Somaliland and terrorists, but rather the Somaliland army and the people of Las Anod.”
Mukhtar told Al Jazeera that his house was shot at by Somaliland’s military alongside more than 1,000 others damaged or demolished by them. He added that Somaliland was shelling targets indiscriminately, which was “evidence that Somaliland wants to inflict as much damage on the people of Sool as possible”.
Two days after the ceasefire was announced, a reported mortar attack at the Gargaar Hospital in the city, killed one of its doctors, Abdisalam Muse Said.
On its part, Hargeisa has claimed that the “ceasefire has been infringed on numerous occasions by armed militias and the terror groups who attacked the city” and also blamed the Somali government and Puntland for what it called attempts to destabilise the breakaway region.
“Unfortunately, we have no other choice but to defend,” Somaliland Defence Minister Abdiqani Ateye said.
What have the reactions been so far?
Somaliland’s Information Minister Sulayman Koore declined to respond to Al Jazeera.
The UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, has also called for an investigation into the killings.
After several days of fighting and condemnation by international human rights organisations and the United States, Somaliland declared an unconditional ceasefire on February 10.
On February 7, Somaliland state broadcaster SLNTV tweeted that its army “has the full capacity to counter any terrorist attack in the country and will strive to bring peace and stability in the region”.
Opposition politicians and other leaders outside the region have said Hargeisa is branding the clashes as operations against ”terrorism” to obfuscate its intentions.
Ahmed Khalif, a politician in Somaliland’s opposition Waddani party, accused Hargeisa of spreading misinformation, telling local station Horn Cable TV, that “it is a lie that there are terrorists in Las Anod, the people of Sool are not terrorists”.
Puntland’s Information Minister Mohamoud Dirir dismissed Somaliland’s allegation. “This is simply the people of Sool defending themselves from aggression,” he told Al Jazeera.
Al-Qaeda-affiliated armed group al-Shabab has also rejected claims that it was involved in the fighting.
Somaliland’s international partners, including the US and the UK, expressed concerns about the violence and called for immediate de-escalation.
Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has also called for a negotiated resolution to the issue.
But Somaliland has responded to the calls for calm from the international community with defiance, with its foreign ministry accusing “international entities” of “encouraging radicals” and spreading “misinformation”, which ignored the country’s “three-decade-long track record for peace and democracy”.
What happens next?
On February 16, Somaliland President Muse Bihi said he has initiated peace talks with the traditional elders of the Dhulbahante clan.
Elders of the clans denied any contact with Bihi for peace talks saying none can be held with Somaliland “until its forces retreat from Las Anod”.
After fighting broke out, influential Sool leader Garad Jama Garad Ismail called for a withdrawal of Somaliland troops from the city as a condition for negotiations but analysts warn their positions on the question of Laascaanood’s future remain far apart.
Hoehne told Al Jazeera, “The Dhulbahante clan never truly accepted the secession of Somaliland from Somalia.”
Analysts say Somaliland may be forced to withdraw its troops and allow aid as peace talks begin.
“The international community’s pressure on Somaliland could help sustain the proposed peace talks and eventually lead to meaningful talks,” Roble said.
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