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Somaliland votes to bolster separatist aspirations

Voters in Somaliland, a breakaway territory in northern Somalia, defied warnings from the Islamist Al Shabaab group by casting ballots in a presidential poll they hope will bolster their aspirations for a separate, internationally-recognised state.


AFP - The self-proclaimed state of Somaliland voted for a new president Saturday in a poll threatened by Islamist insurgents but seen by many voters as a stepping stone towards statehood.

The northern territory has been more stable than Somalia since it broke away in 1991 but a message warning voters to stay home by the leader of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab movement drew draconian security measures.

"All our country's forces are locking the borders. Movements and transport inside Somaliland are also forbidden except for those authorised by the national election commission (NEC)," police chief Mohamed Saqadi Dubad said.

Voting wrapped up at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) with no reports of any violence or fraud, said Abdulrahman Mohamoud, who was in charge of the largest polling station in Hargeisa.

Somaliland, which is more tribally homogenous than the rest of Somalia, has been striving for international recognition for almost two decades and many voters saw the election as a fresh opportunity to demonstrate their aspiring state's democratic credentials.

In the capital Hargeisa, queues started forming in the middle of the night, hours before polling stations opened, amid tight police and army scrutiny.

"I will travel to my polling station now and sleep there," said Ismail Maalin Mohamoud, a tailor, as he prepared to set off late Friday. "I want to vote for Kulmiye," he said.

Kulmiye, which won the largest number of seats in the latest parliamentary elections, is the party of Ahmed Mohamed Silaanyo, seen as President Dahir Riyale Kahin's main rival in Saturday's poll.

The Justice and Welfare party is the country's third parliamentary force and its leader Faisal Ali Warabe the other top contestant.

Official results are not due for another week but a victor is expected to emerge over the next few days as partial results start trickling in.

Earlier this week, overall Shebab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, a native of Somaliland, issued an audio message warning the breakaway state's population that they would "face the consequences" if they cast their ballot.

"Do we say yes to Allah and accept his ruling or follow the infidels who want to lead us in the path of the evil?", Godane said.

Somaliland has strong ties with Shebab arch-foe Ethiopia.

The territory's unilateral secession from the rest of the country is also a challenge to the nationalistic vision of a unified Somalia essential to some of the Shebab's Somali leaders.

It also upsets the ideology held by Somalia's western-backed President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who congratulated the people of Somaliland for their peaceful election in a radio broadcast but urged them to "keep the unity of Somalia in mind".

Saturday's vote has little direct impact on Somaliland's efforts to become independent but breaking away definitively from its troubled neighbour appeared to be the prime motivation for most of the voters queuing up at polling stations Saturday.

"I'm voting for the opposition Kulmiye party. If they are given the mandate to govern Somaliland, they may bring international recognition to our declaration of independence," said 21-year-old Nasir Mohamoud.

Mohamed Abdullahi Barud explained he was growing impatient with the world's reluctance to recognise Somaliland.

"Western countries are hypocrites and colonial-minded... They want to unite us with neighbouring Somalia but that would be like attempting to restore the Soviet Union," he said.

The responsibility to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign state is considered to be the African Union's but the continental body has been very wary of setting a precedent.

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