Somalia

Gunmen attack police station in Somaliland

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* Three policemen wounded in Las Anod

* Rebels want to destabilise northern Somalia

(Updates with political wrangle, paragraphs 16-17)

By Hussein Ali Noor

HARGEISA, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Unidentified attackers hurled hand grenades and opened fire at a police station in Somalia's northern breakaway enclave of Somaliland, wounding three officers, police sources said on Wednesday.

Somaliland is proud of its relative stability, unlike southern regions of the failed Horn of Africa state, where hardline al Shabaab insurgents control large amounts of territory and are fighting a weak Western-backed government.

Washington accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda's proxy in Somalia, and security experts say the group wants to extend its influence north -- aiming to destabilise Somaliland and the neighbouring pro-government, semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

Somaliland police sources told Reuters that an unknown number of attackers threw two grenades at the police station in Las Anod, near the border with Puntland, late on Tuesday before opening fire on the building with assault rifles.

Three policemen on duty there were wounded, two of them seriously, hospital staff said.

The police sources said the town was placed under curfew overnight with extra patrols, and that officers later found a Toyota pickup truck believed to have been used by the gunmen.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

The assault came just three days after security forces in Somaliland said they had foiled an attack on a Hargeisa mosque where the imam had spoken out against militant suicide bombings.

Officials said six rockets and two mortar bombs had been recovered from Imam Sheikh Aden Sira's mosque after a suspected bomber was discovered carrying them in a jacket.

POLITICAL TENSIONS INCREASING

Sira had been critical of suicide bombings carried out by al Shabaab in southern Somalia, and said he received death threats.

On Wednesday, the police sources said one man had been arrested in connection with the Hargeisa mosque incident, and that another was being hunted. They did not elaborate.

Al Shabaab hit Somaliland and Puntland with synchronised suicide blasts that killed at least 24 people in Oct. 2008.

A court in Hargeisa has sentenced five men to death in absentia for the bombings, which struck the Ethiopian embassy, the local president's office and a U.N. building. It said they were on the run in other parts of Somalia.

Somaliland, which has long sought international recognition as sovereign state, declared itself independent in 1991.

Analysts worry a simmering political row between the president of Somaliland and opposition parties over delayed elections could lead to clan militias re-arming, an outbreak of violence, and more turmoil for al Shabaab rebels to exploit.

Somaliland's upper House of Elders remained closed for a third day on Wednesday amid wrangling over positions on several committees. Security forces said they had locked the building to prevent another outbreak of scuffling between rival lawmakers.

The former British protectorate is governed by an opposition-led House of Representatives, which is elected by the people, and an upper house comprised of senior clan elders. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Robin Pomeroy)
Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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