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Somali rivals battle over northern town

Somali rivals both claimed control of a disputed northern town on Tuesday after deadly clashes, and more fighting was feared.

While attention has been focused on southern Somalia, where a weak federal government is fighting an Islamic insurgency, tensions have been increasing in the normally calm north because of a border dispute between autonomous Puntland region and the breakaway republic of Somaliland.

Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, Somaliland’s defence minister, said his forces had defeated fighters from neighbouring Puntland in fighting on Monday.

Ibrahim said his forces had taken control of the disputed town of Las Anod and killed six Puntland soldiers. He said 20 others were wounded, two pickup trucks fitted with weapons were burned and 24 Puntland fighters were taken prisoner, including four senior commanders.

Ibrahim said only three soldiers were injured from his side, but warned of fresh fighting between the two forces.

”We defeated them and forced them to escape to Garowe,” Ibrahim told said by telephone, saying the situation was calm on Tuesday in battle fronts near Las Anod town 120km north-west of Garowe.

”However, there are preparations by both sides for a possible round of fighting,” said the minister, blaming Puntland aggression.

Puntland’s deputy information minister, Abdulahi Mohamud Guled, dismissed Somaliland’s claim as ”flagrant fabrication and propaganda”.

”They were the attackers and we repelled them,” Guled said in a press conference in the capital of Puntland, Garowe, 980km north of Mogadishu. ”The town [Las Anod] is still under our control.”

He said his casualty reports were still being compiled.

It is hard to reconcile the conflicting claims because of the remoteness of the region.

Puntland and Somaliland, which clashed at least four times in the past, have been fighting over the Sool and Sanag regions in northern Somalia. Last week at least one soldier was killed and three others wounded in clashes in near Las Anod.

Somaliland claims independence from the rest of war-ravaged Somalia. It holds regular elections, has its own assembly, security forces and currency. Puntland does not claim independence but has a great degree of autonomy from the weak central government, based in Mogadishu in the south.

Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991, when rival warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The impoverished Horn of Africa nation is awash with weapons and riven by clan rivalries, but Somaliland and Puntland have managed to avoid much of the clan-based fighting that has plagued the rest of the country. — Sapa-AP

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