Dozens have been killed and several more injured as the troops of Somaliland, a separatist breakaway region of Somalia whose sovereignty claim is not internationally recognized, continued shelling Las Anod, Sool region’s capital city, for the fourth day on February 8.
A large number of people have been killed since the troops launched the attack on February 5 to retake the city, which was the epicenter of the ongoing protests calling for reunification with Somalia, according to Hamda Jama, a senior nurse at the city’s maternity hospital. Most of the deaths occurred on Wednesday.
“Since yesterday, troops have started shelling the two hospitals in the city. Nearly half of both the general hospital and the maternity hospital of Las Anod are in ruins. Every hour, a shell is landing in the vicinity of the hospitals [which are around 50 feet across each other]. Only minutes ago, another shell landed in front of the maternity hospital,” Hamda told Peoples Dispatch in a WhatsApp call at around 5:30 p.m, local time, on the evening of Wednesday.
Hamda added, “A pregnant woman in the sixth hour of her labor was killed, along with her unborn child, when a shell hit the maternity ward,” she said, adding that several doctors and nurses have also been injured. Surviving patients, several of them with severe injuries, have been evacuated to a safer place, but the medics are unable to reach them due to heavy shelling of the city.
Ambulances with medics trying to reach those who are getting injured are being specifically targeted, she said. Hamda added that Somaliland troops, who are positioned on the mountains around the city, are also targeting schools, residential areas, food stores and all key areas of the city to inflict maximum damage on Las Anod.
Las Anod, which was captured by Somaliland from Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland in 2007, has become the epicenter of ongoing unionist protests since late December, forcing the occupying Somaliland troops to withdraw to the city’s outskirts in early January 2023.
In an attempt to take back the city, Somaliland’s troops began the ongoing attack on Sunday, February 5, toward the conclusion of the nine-days long ‘self-determination conference’ that was ongoing in the city from January 28, to chart a path towards reunification with Somalia.
The conference passed the “Las Anod Declaration” on Sunday, proclaiming the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn (SSC) region, which together make up over a third of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, to be part of Somalia. It deemed the presence of the “secessionist… Somaliland administration” in the territory as “illegal.”
The conference was attended by youth and women’s groups, civil society organizations, and leaders of the four clans of the SSC region, which had historically been opposed to secession from Somalia, but allegedly forced into Somaliland in 1991.
This declaration was scheduled to be read out at the conference’s conclusion on Sunday. But that session “was disrupted by the Somaliland secessionist forces who attacked the city and targeted innocent civilians, including women and children,” Elham Garad, a Somali activist whose unionist parents had migrated out of Somaliland to the UK, told Peoples Dispatch.
“Most of the [people] killed are civilians. Almost 40% of the population has fled from the city,” Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, chairman of the Institute for Horn of Africa Strategic Studies, told Peoples Dispatch. Over 80,000 people have already been displaced from Las Anod in the current round of violence according to Adam Abdelmoula, UN’s Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia. The supply of water and electricity to the city has also reportedly been cut off.
Nevertheless, youth and local militias supporting the unionist movement for reunification with Somalia remain in the city to defend it from Somaliland’s troops. “The people of the region are left with no choice but to defend themselves in this war waged on them by the separatist forces,” Abdiwahab said.
“I am concerned by reports that the clashes are continuing today with additional claims of new casualties,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a press release on Tuesday, February 7.
“These potentially unlawful killings come just a month after at least 20,000 people were displaced by clashes in [Las Anod], and could contribute to further displacement, compounding the already fragile humanitarian situation in the region,” he added.
These clashes were the result of a violent crackdown on the mass unionist demonstrations calling for reunification with Somalia that began in Las Anod in the last week of December 2022. After killing at least 20 protesters, the Somaliland security forces—who were resisted by local militia supporting reunification—retreated to their barracks on the outskirts of the city.
Protests soon spread across Sool and also to several towns and cities of Sanaag and Cayn, culminating in the ‘self-determination’ conference where the Las Anod Declaration was issued. The declaration states that territories of the SSC region “are part of the Federal Republic of Somalia and they stand for” a united Somalia, which disintegrated after the civil war in the country ended with the collapse of the federal government in 1990.
In 1991, the Somali National Movement (SNM), which had fought against the federal government in the war, declared that the northwestern region of Somalia, formerly a British protectorate, was a separate country. This broke the union with the rest of Somalia, which was formerly an Italian protectorate.
“We declare that we are not part of the Somaliland Administration and that we have never agreed to or participated in the secession program, although the Somaliland administration is trying to force it upon us contrary to international norms and laws,” the Las Anod Declaration states. Demanding the withdrawal of the troops of Somaliland administration from the SSC, it adds, “we are willing and capable to safeguard and maintain the security of our territories.”
Apart from Las Anod, Somaliland’s troops have also been driven out of “Talex and Buuhoodle and half of Sanaag,” Elham said. If the unionist forces succeed in taking over the entirety of the SSC, “the federal government will be left with no choice but to treat it as a federal member state and provide it with services and security,” Abdiwahab pointed out.
To govern the SSC region in the interim, until reunification is formally completed, a 33-member body has been elected by the conference, added Elham. The SSC is the largest region taken over by Somaliland. Should it manage to wrest itself free from Somaliland’s troops and unite with Somalia, “it will be the end of Somaliland,” Abdiwahab opined.
Hamda said: “We plead the International Community to come and see the crimes against humanity committed by Somaliland troops in Las Anod.”
A previous version of this article had mentioned 300 deaths estimated by Hamda Jama at the time. On finding a much lower figure in hospital records, the reference to this higher figure has been removed.