January 3, 2011 / 2:24 PM / 9 years ago

Somaliland says Shabaab ties claim a smokescreen

HARGEISA (Reuters) - The breakaway enclave of Somaliland said on Monday the neighbouring Somali province of Puntland had linked it with the al Shabaab rebel group in order to divert attention away from its creation of a large army.

Semi-autonomous Puntland, also in the north of Somalia, said in a statement over the weekend that it was concerned by Somaliland’s growing ties to al Shabaab, an Islamist group linked to al Qaeda.

The statement escalated a row between the two sides that has been simmering in recent weeks. Officials in Somaliland accuse Puntland of covertly building a large army with the help of foreign experts, despite a U.N. weapons embargo on Somalia.

Somaliland last month detained a plane that landed with military equipment on its way to Puntland’s commercial capital Bosaso. Officials say foreign security contractors are training an army of more than 1,000 in Puntland.

“Puntland’s concern about Somaliland and al Shabaab is baseless, false and intended to take the focus away from Somaliland’s ... arming and training a large army,” Mohamed Abdillahi Omer, Somaliland’s minister for foreign affairs told Reuters.

Somaliland authorities say they are worried armed elements in Puntland could destabilise Somaliland, which is proud of the relative stability it enjoys compared to southern areas of the failed Horn of Africa state. Insurgents control large tracts of Somalia and are fighting a weak Western-backed government.

For its part, Puntland’s government said in its weekend statement that its forces were obliged to “ensure internal security and stability” and expressed surprise that Somaliland saw such moves as a threat.

It accused Somaliland of providing a safe haven and organising support for “the fleeing remnants of the al Shabaab terrorist group which was recently defeated in Galgala hills area (Al Medo mountain range).”

Rejecting the Puntland accusations, Omer said Somaliland was a democratic state with universal democratic values abhorred by al Shabaab.

In July, Somaliland’s President Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo was sworn in after an election international observers said was free and fair, furthering its democratic credentials as it fights for international recognition.

Reporting by Hussein Ali Noor; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Jon Boyle

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