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Officials in Somalia Region Report Arrival of Islamist Fighters

Officials in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland have confirmed local reports that a group of armed fighters, believed to be remnants of Somalia's defeated Islamist movement, arrived in a small coastal settlement near the tip of Somalia on Wednesday. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi reports it is not clear whether the fighters are still in the area or have moved on.

Puntland's Information Minister Mohamed Abdulrahman Banga tells VOA that heavily armed men in two fishing boats came ashore early Wednesday at a settlement called Baar-gaal.

"They were sailing," he said. "They had their own small boats. We do not know exactly where they come from - maybe from Ras Kamboni, Mombasa, or somewhere else."

Minister Banga says because the boats had come to Baar-gaal from the south, most people in the area believe that the men are Islamist fighters, who were driven out of Mogadishu five months ago by Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's secular interim government.

Hundreds of Islamist fighters and their leaders are believed to have fled down to the swampy, densely-forested Islamist stronghold of Ras Kamboni near the Somali-Kenyan border.

In January, the United States launched at least two air strikes in Ras Kamboni on a tip that several al-Qaida terrorists, who had been in Mogadishu under the protection of radical leaders within the defeated Islamic Courts Union, were hiding there.

The terrorists were wanted in connection with the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The air strikes failed to kill them and the al-Qaida operatives, as well as their Somali allies, remain at large.

It is still not clear how many men actually landed in Baar-gaal on Wednesday. Some residents have reported seeing about a dozen. Others, including the local governor, say as many as 35 men, most of whom were not Somalis, landed and clashed briefly with a small number of Puntland troops stationed in the area.

The governor, Muse Gelle, told Mogadishu-based Shabelle Radio on Thursday that the men were foreign Islamic extremists, who had come to Puntland to agitate the local people. He said that Puntland troops were patrolling around Baar-gaal, looking for them.

But Puntland's information minister says the fighters were most likely on their way further north, possibly to Yemen, but rough seas forced them to come ashore.

He says all of the fighters have escaped and no one knows where they are now.