Somaliland and Puntland’s dispute over land stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Ethiopian border risks escalating into open war.

The self-declared republic of Somaliland and autonomous Puntland are locked in a standoff over Sool and Sanaag areas, leading to deadly clashes since the start of 2018 after both sides massed soldiers in the contested areas.

The International Crisis Group said the military standoff could escalate as troops are moved close to Tukaraq, a town that straddles a highway and trade corridor linking Sool and Sanaag to eastern Ethiopia.

The ICG, which researches conflict, said the dispute risks creating space for Al Shabaab insurgents and an Islamic State branch in Puntland.

Somaliland and Puntland have since 1998 vied for control of the neck of land stretching from the Gulf of Aden to Ethiopia’s border. The contest boiled in January 2018 with 20 skirmishes recorded.

A battle on January 8 saw Somaliland overrun Tukaraq, leaving soldiers dead on both sides.

The neighbours enjoyed relative peace and stability for about three decades as war plagued the rest of Somalia. Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is yet to get global acceptance.

Puntland is a semi-autonomous state of Somalia.

Mediation

A confrontation could be disastrous for northern Somalia and risks contributing to instability across the country by playing into the hands of Al Shabaab insurgency or even the small ISIS branch in Puntland.

The ICG said that even though African and Western leaders have seemingly been caught off guard by the confrontation, they should take steps to head it off while the UN mission in Somalia renews mediation efforts between the two.

“War is still avoidable, but to forestall it both sides need to take a step back, dial down their rhetoric and allow for mediation led by the UN,” said the think tank in a briefing titled Averting War in Northern Somalia.

Recommendations include the UN renewing mediation with Ethiopia and Somalia governments.

The scope covers initiating peace in the disputed areas and has to involve clerics and local clan leaders, to bridge divisions and curb violence.

Priorities are brokering a ceasefire, ensuring both sides commit to withdraw troops in the contested regions, allowing in humanitarian aid, reducing inflammatory rhetoric and conducting future talks to resolve the dispute.

Ethiopia is arguably one of the countries with real leverage over both Puntland and Somaliland. Addis Ababa’s past interventions were instrumental in brokering temporary truces.

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