NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia's northern region of Puntland, which up to now has been spared violence fuelled by Islamist fighters, said on Sunday its security forces had arrested two suspected members of the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militant group.
Puntland's president has said the militants, squeezed out of their urban strongholds further south, were moving north towards his semi-autonomous region, a relatively peaceful area.
The government said in a statement security forces on Saturday arrested a man known as Abu Hafsa, whom they said was al Shabaab's head of assassinations. A second man, Abdirizak Hussein Tahlil, identified as an al Shabaab logistics officer, was also arrested.
The statement said Puntland forces had also seized suicide jackets, hand grenades, explosive powder, as well as wires, fuses and remote controls during the raid in Galkayo.
Al Shabaab denied the arrests.
"None of our men has been arrested and we don't know people by these names. They also claimed they seized our weapons. All this is propaganda to get funds from Westerners," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's spokesman for military operations, told Reuters on Sunday.
The government in an email attached pictures of the explosives it said it had seized, as well as pictures of who it said were the al Shabaab members.
Under pressure from African Union 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 2007.
Al Shabaab withdrew from the capital Mogadishu in August last year and lost their last major bastion of Kismayu seven weeks ago. Officials say many fighters have taken up positions in the mountains west of Bossaso in Puntland.
But in an audio statement posted on al Shabaab-linked websites, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab's spokesman, claimed the militant group still controlled most of southern and central Somalia. "Even babies know that we don't need to go to Puntland's hills," he said.
Puntland authorities have captured two shipments of explosives from Yemen in the past few months in incidents that have raised concern about the possible cooperation between Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda earlier this year.
Puntland spans the relatively calm north of Somalia and has largely escaped the worst of Somalia's upheaval of the last 20 years. It has been showcased by foreign powers advocating a loose federal political system in Somalia as a solution to its troubles.
The area is also rich in energy resources and is being sized up by oil explorers. However, Puntland's authorities have said there is increasing insecurity, which it blames on al Shabaab.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Rosalind Russell