‘Real sense of urgency’ as Yemen conflict poses risk to Somalia
NAIROBI - Somalia's prime minister warned Thursday that the conflict in Yemen poses dangers across the Gulf of Aden where an influx of refugees is stretching scarce resources and Al-Qaeda militants are eager for support.
More than 2,000 refugees have so far arrived in the northern Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland, with the UN refugee agency preparing to receive as many as 100,000 in the coming months.
Those fleeing the fighting are a mixture of Yemenis and Somalis.
"Our economy cannot support this influx of refugees," Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said during a visit to the Kenyan capital Nairobi on Thursday.
"We need a lot of support to accommodate these refugees," said Sharmarke, whose country has itself suffered from decades of civil war.
In the south of Somalia Al-Qaeda-aligned Shebab militants still hold sway in much of the countryside, despite being pushed out of most towns by a coalition of African Union and Somali troops. A string of militant leaders have also been killed in US drone strikes.
Sharmarke said "there's a debate" within Shebab over whether to switch allegiance to Islamic State.
But he warned that the strengthening of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which has long had ties to Shebab and has taken advantage of Yemen's strife to seize new territory, could benefit the Somali group.
The prime minister warned that Al-Qaeda operatives from Yemen could use the cover of fleeing refugees to infiltrate Somalia and called for stringent screening of new arrivals as well as a renewed regional effort to defeat Shebab.
"There's a real sense of urgency for us in the region to quickly shut down the Jubba corridor," said Sharmarke, referring to a riverine area in southern Somalia where Shebab fighters are concentrated.
"Shebab is not a local issue but a regional one," said Sharmarke. The group struck Uganda in 2010 and has attacked Kenya repeatedly, most recently killing 148 people at Garissa University earlier this month.
Referring to international coalitions currently fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Sharmarke said, "There has to be a regional solution to Shebab."
Sharmarke, who has both Somali and Canadian citizenship, was named prime minister in December, the second time he held the position.
His appointment has been hailed by key donors as a chance to end months of political infighting and stalemate that beset his predecessor and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.