The region of Puntland, in northeastern Somalia, has banned journalists from interviewing al-Qaida-linked rebels currently battling the semi-autonomous state.  While officials say the restriction is necessary for the region's security, media rights groups have condemned the ban as an attack on press freedoms.

At a press conference in Puntland's commercial capital, Bosaso, Information Minister Abdihakin Ahem Guled issued a ban on the release of news concerning Islamist insurgent leader Mohamed Said Atom and his forces.  Guled told the Puntland media it was obligated to help maintain peace in the semi-autonomous region and warned that any outlets found disobeying the order would face serious consequences.

The ban comes two days after the arrest of several employees of Bosaso radio station Horseed FM, after it broadcast an interview with Atom on Friday evening.

On Friday, five government soldiers were killed in a battle with Atom's forces near Galgala.  In the interview with Horseed FM, Atom claimed responsibility for the deaths and vowed to continue his war against the Puntland government.  The deputy director of Horseed FM, Abdifatah Jama Mire, was charged Saturday with violating anti-terrorist laws, sentenced to six years in prison and fined $500 for the broadcast.  Six other station employees arrested with Mire were not brought to trial and were released from detention.

The Mogadishu-based National Union of Somali Journalists said the ban and recent arrests represented a "steady encroachment on media freedom and independence;" Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called Mire's sentence a "flagrant and deliberate" violation of press freedom and demanded his release.

The station's director also criticized the decision, saying it was unfair to allow media to broadcast government statements, but restrict coverage of rebel groups.

Atom is the leader of the remnants of insurgent group al-Ittihad al-Islamiya.  Atom has declared war against the administration in Puntland, in order to establish an Islamic state in the region.  His group, which maintains camps in the mountainous area along Puntland's western border, has been the target of a recent military campaign to expel Islamist insurgents from the region.  

In contrast to Somali's southern region, Puntland has been relatively peaceful since declaring autonomy in 1998.  Over the past year, however, southern problems such as piracy and Islamic insurgency have affected the Puntland region.

While the military campaign last month managed to drive Atom's insurgents from their camps around Galgala, the forces were not totally eliminated and provide a constant threat to regional stability.