* Militants reported to be moving into mountainous areas
* Fears over al Shabaab, al Qaeda in Yemen links
By Yara Bayoumy
GAROWE, Puntland, Nov 9 Somalia's al
Qaeda-linked militants are moving north into the semi-autonomous
region of Puntland, long regarded as a relatively peaceful area,
after having been squeezed out of their strongholds further
south, the president of Puntland said.
Until now, Puntland has largely escaped the worst of the
upheaval in Somalia, which has been deprived of an effective
central government for the past two decades.
The region is rich in energy resources and oil exploration
companies are sizing it up. If the militants were able to
establish a permanent presence in the area, it might discourage
such exploration efforts.
Although militant numbers are still limited, the authorities
fear al Shabaab could gain better access to weapons coming
across the Gulf of Aden if it successfully regrouped in the
"Their presence has intensified since international forces
pushed them in the south. The fighters are coming from the
south," Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole told
Reuters at the weekend.
"We believe that there are ... more than 400 (fighters) in
those areas," he said in Garowe, Puntland's administrative
capital, on the sidelines of a visit by the European Union
ambassador to Somalia during which a $200 million aid package
Under pressure from African Union (AMISOM) peacekeeping
troops and Somali government forces, al Shabaab has lost many of
its major urban strongholds in south-central Somalia since it
launched a rebellion against the Western-backed government in
The rebels, who want to impose their strict interpretation
of sharia Islamic law across the Horn of Africa state, withdrew
from the capital Mogadishu in August last year and lost their
last major bastion of Kismayu six weeks ago.
Farole said most of the fighters have taken up positions in
the mountains west of Bossaso, an area that is hard to reach
because of its difficult terrain.
Farole said the authorities had captured two shipments of
explosives from Yemen in the past few months. In the most recent
seizure, the boat had been laden with rocket-propelled grenades,
anti-tank mines and other munitions.
The incident raised concern about possible cooperation
between Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and
al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda earlier this
"It was enough to destroy Puntland," Farole told Reuters in
the courtyard of the main government house where Somalia and
Puntland's flags were displayed.
"It is easy to ship arms and ammunition and explosives
(from) that area," said Farole, who believes AQAP and al Shabaab
Farole said he needed international help to train and equip
his security forces, lamenting how such support was focused
solely on the Mogadishu government to help it fight al Shabaab.
The EU's special envoy to Somalia, Michele Cervone d'Urso,
said he was worried about the security situation in Puntland.
"While AMISOM is advancing in the south, al Shabaab has not
been defeated ... they have been moving to other areas,
including the mountainous areas of Puntland," he said.
"There are significant areas of Puntland which are difficult
to control for these security forces, that's the main challenge
there and hence they're able to find specific areas (that are)
potential safe havens," he said.
Since withdrawing from most of the territory they used to
control, al Shabaab has resorted to asymmetrical warfare
tactics, and has launched deadly suicide and car bomb attacks
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew