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Fears of Military Clash Growing Between Somaliland and Puntland  

Residents in the town of Las Qoray in a disputed region between Somaliland and Puntland say there are signs of an impending military clash between the two regional rivals, following the take over of the strategic coastal town two days ago by Somaliland troops. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, tension between Somaliland and Puntland began escalating about two weeks ago when Somali pirates arrived in the Las Qoray area with four hostages.

Las Qoray resident Mohamed Aynab tells VOA that the town is at the center of a brewing conflict and scared residents are preparing to flee.

Aynab says people in Las Qoray are terrified and confused by the sudden presence of Somaliland troops in their town and Puntland threats to take it back by force. He says Somaliland authorities are now in charge of Las Qoray.

The trouble began soon after Puntland-based pirates moved to the mountains near Las Qoray in the disputed Sanag region with four hostages they kidnapped last month off the coast of Somalia near Yemen.

Sanag's regional Governor Mohamed Said Nur says local elders asked Puntland to temporarily withdraw its forces in the area and give the elders a chance to negotiate with the pirates for the release of the hostages.

The governor, who is loyal to the Puntland government, says there was fear that the pirates could kill the westerners if they felt threatened by soldiers and that is why the troops pulled out of the Las Qoray area last week. He says Somaliland took advantage of the situation and moved its troops in.

VOA was unable to reach Somaliland officials for comment. In media reports, Somaliland officials said that its troops entered Las Qoray to mount a rescue of the hostages. A Somaliland military commander told Reuters news agency that his troops had the pirates surrounded and that the area had been sealed off.

Governor Nur insists that local elders are still negotiating with the pirates. He says if the negotiations fail, Puntland troops would be redeployed to Las Qoray, raising fears that the two sides could fight over control of the town.

Since 1998, semi-autonomous Puntland has claimed Sanag, and its neighboring Sool region, as sovereign territory based on the ethnic make-up of the region's inhabitants and their clan ties to Puntland.

Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is not internationally recognized, claims both regions based on the colonial border drawn by the British.

The disputed strip of desert has been the site of numerous skirmishes. Two major battles took place just in the past year.

Last October, the two rivals clashed over control of Las Anod, the capital of Sool. Five months later, they exchanged heavy gunfire in the town of Dahar in the Sanag region.

Each prompted warnings that a full-scale war could break out and further destabilize Somalia and the Horn.