Officials in the breakaway republic of Somaliland say reports it is holding more than a dozen U.S. residents as possible terrorist suspects are not true. The reports have fueled speculation that 20 Somali men who were living in the United States have been recruited by the radical al-Shabab group to destabilize Somaliland and other parts of Somalia.
In an interview with VOA, Somaliland's Interior Minister Abdullahi Ismail Irro says airport security officials detained several Somali men late last month, after they had arrived on a flight from the southern Somali capital Mogadishu to the Somaliland capital Hargeisa.
The minister says two of them were arrested, suspected of trying to smuggle 10 small anti-aircraft missiles into Somaliland from central Somalia. But he says neither of the men was from the United States and they were released without charge.
"After investigation, after two or three days, the police released them," he said. "They came from Mogadishu, not from America."
Initial media reports from Somaliland said that 11 young men were detained at the airport and all of them were U.S. residents.
Several days later, local newspapers reported Somaliland security forces raided a house in Hargeisa and arrested four Somali men and a woman suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. The reports said the four men recently arrived from the United States.
Interior Minister Irro said he had no information about the raid and could not comment.
The Washington-based president of the Somaliland American Council, Rashid Nur, says he believes the Somaliland government is not revealing all it knows.
"As you have said, it is really difficult to get the true picture of who these people are and their identities. But from versions coming out of the government and from other people, some of these people are U.S. residents," said Nur. "There are also some Somalilanders who went to some of the regions in the south, received training, and came back."
The al-Shabab group, listed as a terrorist organization by the United States for having links to al-Qaida, led a two-year insurgency against Somalia's Ethiopia-backed interim government. It now controls much of southern and central Somalia.
The group is committed to implementing its strict version of Islamic law in Somalia and is vehemently opposed to Somaliland's growing closeness with Ethiopia and the West.
Western counterterrorism officials say they fear al-Shabab is running terrorist training camps in Somalia for recruits from the United States, Canada, Europe and Saudi Arabia. As many as 20 young Somali men who were living in the U.S. state of Minnesota are believed to have left for Somalia in the past 18 months.
One of those Somali-Americans blew himself up last October in one of five near-simultaneous suicide car bombings that killed more than 20 people in Somaliland and neighboring Puntland.
The al-Shabab operative suspected of planning the Somaliland bombings, Abdulfatah Abdullahi Gutaale, may also have been a U.S. resident. Interior Minister Irro says he fled Somaliland before the bombings and remains at large.