Somali officials in the semiautonomous region of Puntland have announced a cease-fire following two days of heavy fighting between two security forces in the commercial port town of Bosaso.
The fighting ignited Tuesday between the Puntland Security Forces (PSF), an anti-terror unit once supported by the United States, and the region's regular security forces.
At least 14 people were killed and 63 others were injured, according to witnesses and medical sources. The sides exchanged fire using small arms, machine guns and mortars, forcing some residents to flee, witnesses told VOA Somali.
The region's security minister, Abdisamad Mohamed Galan, announced the cease-fire Wednesday, saying the decision was made after intervention from traditional elders, scholars and business leaders who urged that the fighting be stopped.
"We are appealing to anyone working for peace that we are ready to accept any effort that is not against law, which can lead to cease-fire," Galan told the media.
The clashes came after a weekslong standoff between the two sides. The dispute started after the president of Puntland, Said Abdullahi Deni, fired PSF commander Mohamoud Osman Diyano on November 24. Diyano rejected the sacking, saying it was "interference" with the unit.
Before the fighting began, local elders attempted to solve the dispute. On December 7, elders in Puntland ruled the firing was legal. But the elders also ruled that buildings, weapons and vehicles used by the unit belonged to Diyano. They also asked the regional government to pay the unit 13 months of wages and to pay for the security protection of the commander.
The Puntland administration rejected the ruling by the elders, arguing the weapons and other assets belonged to the regional government, and they demanded all of it be handed over "as soon as possible."
Tuesday's fighting flared up after regional soldiers closed roads leading to the headquarters of PSF on the eastern side of Bosaso. Residents said it was the most intense fighting the town has seen since 1992, when the Al-Ittihad Salafi group fought against a local faction.
PSF has been fighting al-Shabab and Islamic State group militants that have bases in this relatively stable region in Somalia. The unit previously received support from the United States in fighting extremist groups in the country, according to a Somali security officer familiar with the unit's operations who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the issue.
The officer said the support ended a year ago after the unit resisted efforts to integrate it into Danab, an elite Somali unit assisted and mentored by U.S. forces. The U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu did not respond to a VOA Somali request for the status of its support to PSF. The embassy did, however, call for an end to the fighting in Bosaso.
Reached by VOA Somali, the United States Africa Command said it did not have a formal relationship with the PSF and did not provide direct support to the PSF. AFRICOM described PSF as Puntland's "most capable counterterrorism force" and said it was concerned about how the clashes could affect the PSF's ability to fight multiple militant groups.
"Both al-Shabab and ISIS likely consider the PSF a substantial obstacle to gaining territory and revenue in Puntland and are likely closely monitoring the situation," AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told VOA Somali. "We are concerned that these clashes will diminish the counterterrorism capabilities and focus of the PSF and provide these terrorist organizations with an opening to exploit."
Experts in Somalia say the fighting in Puntland is yet another setback on fighting extremist groups.
"It's very unfortunate that rather than fighting terrorism, Somali troops are yet again embroiled in avoidable political conflicts," said security and terrorism expert Samira Gaid.
"This localized fighting takes away the necessary attention from anti-terror operations. Sustained offensive action against the terror group is needed in order to keep it on the back foot, but situations like these allow them the space to reorganize and operate."
In October, the U.S. said it was reviewing its support for Danab following the unit's participation in a battle in central Somalia against Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, a moderate religious group and former ally in the fight against al-Shabab extremists.