Somaliland President Warns Islamic Group

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 30, 2006; 5:21 PM

HARGEISA, Somalia -- The president of the breakaway republic of Somaliland on Saturday played down the rise of Islamic militants in the region but said if they tried to destabilize his territory, they would be treated as an enemy.

Speaking to The Associated Press at his office in the capital Hargeisa, Dahir Rayale Kahin said Muslim Sharia law has long been used in Somalia, but had now taken on a disturbing "fanatical slant."

Somaliland, an unrecognized and self-declared republic in northern Somalia, has already experienced Islamic extremism.

Since 2003, four foreign aid workers in its territory have been killed in attacks blamed on Aden Hashi Ayro, military chief of the Islamic militant group that controls much of southern Somalia. The U.N. says he is a suspected al-Qaida collaborator trained in the group's camps in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Ayro surfaced in Kismayo in southern Somalia, a strategic seaport that the Islamic group recently wrested from forces that support Somalia's internationally recognized but weak government based in Baidoa.

Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has been relatively peaceful and stable compared with the rest of Somalia, which descended into anarchy following the 1991 ouster of longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre by warlords.

Kahin's territory is in the northern area that was British Somaliland until 1960. The British withdrew then as Italian Somaliland, to the south, gained independence and the two became the new nation of Somalia.

Kahin said Somaliland was not going to rejoin Somalia because their 30-year union "ended in disaster. We have no intention of going back to that no more."

However, Kahin said Somaliland is willing to discuss common issues with Somalia when a government there takes hold.

"We will talk about how they (Somalia) must reach the state where we are now. We can talk as two equal states," he said.

Somalia's interim government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order after years of lawlessness. But it has struggled to assert authority.

Clerics and militiamen set up the Union of Islamic Courts in the mid-1990s in a bid to restore order by enforcing Islamic law. The Islamists have brought a semblance of order after years of anarchy.

Somaliland's president, however, believes the situation is fluid in Somalia and time will tell whether Islamists _ who have been on the rise since taking control of the capital Mogadishu in June and then seizing much of southern Somalia _ will be a power to reckon with.

"Let us see whether they will stay in the areas they (the Islamists) are ruling. I see what is going on is fluid. Let us give them time," Kahin said.

On Saturday the fighters took control of a strategically important village near the Ethiopian border through which the only roads between central Somalia and Ethiopia pass. The move further consolidated the group's hold on southern Somalia.

Although Kahin said Somaliland is not concerned by the rise of the Islamists in the south, if they seek to expand their influence northward into Somaliland, "They will be an enemy like others."

The Islamic fighters' strict and often severe interpretation of Islam recalls Afghanistan's ousted Taliban rulers and contrasts with the moderate Islam that has dominated Somali culture for centuries.

The United States has accused the Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden has portrayed Somalia as a battleground in his war with the West.

Kahin believes the entire region will only have peace when its leaders stop looking for outside help to resolve its 15-year conflict and when other countries stop trying to find solutions.

Somalia's leaders and the people, he said, need to sit down and negotiate their differences as happened when the British withdrew in 1960. Since 2002, Somaliland has made efforts to set up democratically elected state structures.

The most recent was its first multiparty parliamentary elections in September 2005, which saw Kahin's Udub party win 33 seats and become the single largest party in the 82-member House of Representatives.

Kahin won the 2003 presidential elections. His party won the 2002 single-party local polls. The majority of voters endorsed Somaliland's secession from the rest of Somalia in a 1999 referendum.

The region has its own security and police forces, justice system and currency.

It is not, however, recognized by any other state.

© 2006 The Associated Press