/ 30 October 2008

Somalia death toll rises, sheikh arrested

North Somali authorities said on Thursday they had arrested a prominent local sheikh suspected of involvement in a wave of suicide attacks that killed at least 30 people.

There was still no claim of responsibility for the five bombs in Puntland and Somaliland regions on Wednesday.

But suspicion has fallen on Islamist insurgents fighting the Somali government and its Ethiopian military allies.

The United States blamed al-Qaeda, which it says works through the local Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, for the attacks, which overshadowed a regional heads-of-state meeting in Kenya to discuss the 17-year-long conflict in Somalia.

Medical staff in Bosasso port, in semi-autonomous Puntland, said two soldiers wounded by one of the car bombs, at an intelligence headquarters, had died overnight, bringing to at least five the victims of that strike.

Intelligence officials said they had arrested a local Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohamud Ismail, over the Puntland attack.

”Soldiers attacked our house and opened fire on us. They injured my uncle in the arm and then took him away,” relative Abdishakur Mire said, confirming the arrest.

Twenty people died at Ethiopia’s embassy in Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway region of Somaliland, and at least five were killed in synchronised blasts at the local president’s office and a United Nations building there.

Peace plan
International condemnation of the blasts came from the UN, the European Union, the African Union and the United States, among others.

AU chairperson Jean Ping said he ”strongly condemns these terrorist attacks, which came at a time of renewed efforts … to bring about lasting peace, security and reconciliation”.

A UN-brokered plan to bring moderate opposition members into government has gathered political momentum but had little impact on fighting on the ground. Islamists hardliners have timed attacks to try to scupper the peace process.

Both Somaliland and Puntland had been relatively quiet in recent months compared with the south, and Wednesday’s coordinated blasts would mark a major northward expansion by al-Shabaab if it is confirmed the group was behind them.

Violence in Somalia has killed nearly 10 000 civilians since the start of last year and forced more than a million from their homes, triggering a humanitarian crisis aid workers say is one of the worst — and most neglected — in the world.

The government of Somaliland, which has declared the region independent and prides itself on maintaining greater stability than south Somalia, poured soldiers onto the streets of Hargeisa.

”We hereby order all security forces to be on full alert,” Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin said.

”This is a coordinated act by our enemies … the existence of Somaliland is being threatened and as such I urge the people to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activity.” — Reuters