Militants loyal to warlord Mohamed Said Atom have repeatedly fought against government forces in recent weeks, and Atom told a local radio station that his men have retreated to their mountain hideout in Gal Gala to plan guerrilla attacks. Government forces recently drove through the desert toward Gal Gala in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
A U.N. report says officials have credible information that Atom has delivered arms sent by Eritrea to al-Shabab forces in southern Somalia. Al-Shabab is Somalia's dominant insurgent group and has ties with al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab has so far distanced itself from activities in Puntland, a semiautonomous region that set up its own administration in 1998, but fears are rising that it could expand into the north if local authorities fail to address grievances that feed Atom's ambitions.
The warlord wants the administration to dismantle the U.S.-backed Puntland Intelligence Service and to apply Islamic law in the region.
"Puntland is a very weak administration and if it loses the military initiative, there is a strong fear that it will have a southern-like scenario," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert with the International Crisis Group. He said Puntland forces are better organized than government troops in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, but can't withstand a determined insurgency without help.
Clashes between Atom's fighters and government forces began in late July, when the militants attacked Puntland forces near Atom's home base, a rugged and mountainous area about 20 miles (30 kilometers) outside the region's commercial capital, Bossaso.
Puntland's security minister said his forces have killed more than 30 militants since the fighting started, a claim denied by Atom.
A March report by the U.N.'s Monitoring Group says Atom has been importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to southern Somalia.
Atom's "activities pose a growing threat to peace and security in both Puntland and Somaliland," said the report, noting that "Atom appears to be preparing to confront both the Puntland and the Somaliland authorities more directly."
Until recently Puntland was spared by the large-scale violence that has plagued much of Somalia's southern and central regions, where Islamist militants are trying to topple the weak, U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu.
Warsan Cismaan Saalax, a member of the Puntland Diaspora Forum, a group that promotes peace in the region, said the clashes between Atom and Puntland were "inevitable" because "no government will accept to have armed militiamen in its backyard.
"But to defuse the situation, a frank dialogue with Atom is needed," she said. "And to reach that stage, there must be a cease-fire first."
Since he took office in January last year, Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole has been reaching out to Islamists in his region to reduce al-Shabab's influence.
"We have tried through (Atom's) clan elders to persuade him to give up his terrorist activities but he rejected their overtures," said Puntland Security Minister Yusuf Ahmed Khayr. He said he fears Atom may start using suicide bombers.
Atom was among nearly a dozen suspected Islamist militants in Somalia whose assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department in April. He considers Puntland officials apostates for failing to apply Islamic law, and is especially critical of the Puntland Intelligence Services, calling its members "Crusaders."
Specifics on the clashes are difficult to find. Local authorities have imposed a news blackout on the fighting, and a court sentenced a radio station manager to six years in prison after his station aired an interview with Atom earlier this month.
Abdi says Atom "is hijacking a long running local feeling of marginalization," a situation where some clans feel they have no voice in the state's affairs.
Atom's Warsengali clan cited that lack of consultation between government and clans when they took arms up against security forces in 2006. The clan objected to a plan to conduct surveys in the mineral-rich area of Gal Gala.
Analysts have long argued that the more the violence in the south is allowed to rage, the more the north's stability is threatened.
"It is difficult to inoculate the north from the instability and chaos in the south," said Abdi. "What we are seeing in Puntland now is a perfect example of a spillover effect."
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