Fierce fighting has broken out in Somalia's semi-autonomous state of Puntland, as the government mounts an offensive to drive out Islamist forces accused of destabilizing the region. Attacks in the region took place near Bosaso, in the western Bari region of Somalia.
Puntland President Abdirahman Farole told reporters the fighting was initiated by the rebels early Monday when they attacked Puntland security forces gathered in the area. There are unconfirmed reports that more than a dozen rebels were killed in the fighting. President Farole said Puntland forces killed some rebels and also captured one of the leaders of the attack.
The president called for the international community to assist Puntland in eradicating Islamist insurgents in the region, warning that it would spread throughout Somalia if not eliminated. The Puntland government has been preparing for an offensive in the region in recent weeks to expel the remnants of insurgent group al-Ittihad al Islamiya, led by Mohamed Said Atom.
While most of the group was driven out by the government in the early 1990s, Atom has maintained a presence in the mountainous region on Puntland's eastern border, which the government fears will be used to establish terrorist training camps similar to those in Afghanistan. The U.N. Security Council has also identified Atom as one of the principal suppliers for Islamist group al-Shabab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia.
President Farole has accused Atom, as well as "international terror groups," of attempting to destabilize the semi-autonomous region. In addition to mobilizing forces around Galgala, the Puntland government expelled about 500 southern Somalis last week from the region's economic capital Bosaso. The deportation has drawn sharp criticism from the U.N. refugee agency, but President Farole defended the expulsions, saying the group targeted posed a major security threat to the region. The 500 are being sent back to their homes in the tumultuous south, where insurgents - such as al-Shabab - are battling Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to create an Islamic state.
The terrorist group, which controls large portions of the region including parts of Mogadishu, has recently ordered families living in Shabab-held territories in the Lower Shabele region to send one able-bodied male to fight government and African Union forces in Mogadishu. While there are conflicting reports about the order, one source told VOA those unable to pay were required to donate either money to al-Shabab or blood for wounded fighters.
Other reports from other residents in Lower Shabele indicated that families that can not provide male volunteers must purchase an AK-47 from the rebel group or simply pay $50 per month.