Dozens more killed defending unionist city of Las Anod from separatist Somaliland

Scores were killed on April 1 while defending Las Anod—the city at the heart of movement to reunify the region with Somalia—from attacks by the separatist Somaliland army

April 06, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
On Saturday, Somaliland forces “attacked [Las Anod] from three sides, but they could not capture any territory.”(Photo: Qalib Barud)

Troops from Somaliland, a separatist breakaway from Somalia, shelled the contested city of Las Anod—the epicenter of the movement to reunify the Sool, Sanag and Cayn (SSC) region with Somalia—again on Tuesday, April 4. Somaliland forces’ previous attempt to recapture Las Anod, on Saturday, April 1, had left 37 dead and over 200 injured, Jaama Mohamed Mursal, a doctor at the bombed-out Las Anod General Hospital, told Peoples Dispatch

On Saturday, Somaliland forces “attacked the city from three sides, but they could not capture any territory. They in fact took a lot of losses,” added Elham Garad, a UK-based Somali activist who has been volunteering in Las Anod. 

The fighters defending Las Anod are mostly former Somaliland soldiers recruited from the SSC region into the army, which they deserted after it turned against the city’s civilians, claimed Garad Mukhtar, one of the 14 traditional elders of the SSC region to whom these fighters report.

Most of the deaths on the SSC side on April 1 were of these fighters on the frontlines. However, at least four civilians, including a local councilor, died in the shelling by Somaliland’s army on the city center and other residential areas, according to Dr. Jaama. 

Somaliland soldiers allegedly also killed another civilian by opening fire in Ade Adeye, a village about 35 km from Las Anod, where they were met with a protest when retreating with their wounded to Oog, the nearest Somaliland city outside SSC, about 100 km from Las Anod. 

Both sides claim to have taken prisoners of war after the eight-hour long battle on Saturday, which was preceded on Friday by extensive shelling on the city by Somaliland army, reportedly hitting even the Mayor’s office. Two were killed in the shelling on March 31, including 19-year-old Fatumo Yusuf, moments after she filmed this clip under mortar fire.

Dr. Jaama estimates that over 350 people have died and more than 1,800 injured since February 6, when Somaliland started its offensive to recapture Las Anod. The city had originally been captured from Somalia’s autonomous State of Puntland in 2007. According to Garad, when Puntand withdrew its forces to minimize the destruction of Las Anod, Somaliland occupied the broader region.

SSC leaders allege that the Somaliland state has since been systematically assassinating prominent leaders, including politicians, intellectuals and businessmen of the region, a which has historically opposed secession from Somalia.

Somaliland, which was formed as a secessionist breakaway from Somalia in 1991, claims that the SSC region has always been a part of it. This region is rich in oil wealth and makes up over a third of what the self-declared republic of Somaliland regards as its territory. However, Somaliland’s claim of sovereignty has no international recognition.

While Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi claims that the SSC region is a part of the national agreement that formed Somaliland, SSC leaders maintain that their only agreement was to have peaceful relations with Somaliland, and never to accede into it.

Las Anod becomes epicenter of the movement to reunite SSC with Somalia

Protests calling for reunification with Somalia started in Las Anod in late December 2022, triggered by the killing of another prominent politician. Somaliland forces cracked down on the protests, killing 20 civilians, but was later forced out of the city and retreated to its Goojacade base in early January 2023. Protests soon spread to other cities across the SSC region, where the blue flag of Somalia was raised in place of Somaliland’s tricolor. 

Read | Protests in breakaway Somaliland call for reunification with Somalia

The unionist movement in the region was consolidated at a conference in Las Anod that declared the SSC a part of Somalia and the presence of the Somaliland administration in the region illegal.

It was after the Las Anod conference that Somaliland began the war on February 6, forcing over 200,000 people in and around the city to flee from their homes by the end of the month, according to the UN. Many more are likely to have fled subsequently as the attacks continued, including on March 18, when 47 were killed and over 280 injured. 

Read | Separatist Somaliland escalates war on Somali unification movement

After several such attacks, the Somaliland National Defense Forces (SNDF) spokesperson announced on March 26 that “SNDF has shifted from defensive approach to offensive against foreign invaders in LA [Las Anod]. Professionally planned strategic military operations will be launched onward.”

“Bring it on,” SSC leader Garad responded, exuding confidence that their forces could defend the city. “Just let us know when you need an exit strategy or way out,” he said, adding that another attack had been repelled that very day, when a delegation of traditional elders from Mogadishu had come to SSC to mediate for a negotiated settlement.

The following day, on March 27, European Union (EU) Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber, called for a ceasefire and for the parties to “engage in negotiations for a long-term settlement and enable humanitarian access.”

The US, which has been making several overtures interpreted as attempts to legitimize Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty without recognizing it, also called “on Somaliland to pull back its security forces” in a statement on March 30. It also asked “militias in Lascanood [Las Anod] to refrain from any offensive actions against Somaliland forces.”

“We are not a part of Somaliland. And we will not be a part of it.”

The Somaliland army shelled the city throughout the next day, before launching another invasion on April 1. This was also repelled, albeit with high casualties. That day President of the Federal Republic of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud appointed Abdikarim Hussein Guled as the Special Envoy for Somaliland Affairs.

Abdikarim not only “has corruption charges against him,” but is also related to Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi, alleged Elham. “His wife and children live in [Somaliland’s capital] Hargeisa, and he has massive business investments there,” she added, reiterating the widespread perception among Somali nationalists that Hassan Sheik has been inept and pliable to foreign powers.

In a carefully worded statement, the SSC leaders welcomed the envoy and wished him well in the talks with Somaliland. The leaders, however, added that “these talks do not concern us” because “we are not a part of Somaliland, we were never a part of it. And we will not be a part of it.”