British citizens should immediately leave the breakaway Somaliland region of Somalia because of a specific threat to Westerners, British diplomats said Sunday. It was the second such warning issued for an African region in just days and comes amid growing turbulence across the continent's north.
In a statement emailed to reporters, Britain's Foreign Office did not go into any further detail about the nature of the threat but noted that "kidnapping for financial or political gain, motivated by criminality or terrorism" is an issue throughout Somalia.
Somalia has endured years of civil war, and Britain — along with the United States and a host of other countries — has long advised against all travel to the Horn of Africa nation. Sunday's travel warning applies specifically to the northwest territory of Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 and has since been a haven of relative peace amid the chaos and bloodshed of the country's south.
Somaliland Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulahi Omar told a news conference that his government has full confidence in its security. "We don't believe in that warning," he said. "We are informing the public and foreigners in our country that there's no security scares at all. But in general, terrorism is a worldwide menace."
The new warning was issued only days after Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada urged their citizens in the Libyan city of Benghazi to evacuate in response to what was then described as an imminent threat to Westerners. European officials told The Associated Press at the time that schools were thought to be among the potential targets.
The exact reason for the warnings remains unclear, but they come at a time of heightened tension across north Africa. French and African land forces are battling al-Qaida-linked Islamists in northern Mali, while a renewed bout of unrest has gripped Egypt following the two-year anniversary of the revolution that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak.
In addition, a Jan. 16 attack on the Ain Amenas natural gas plant in the Sahara ignited a four-day siege by Algerian forces in which at least 37 hostages and 29 militants died. An al-Qaida-affiliated group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Libya also remains unstable following the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
It was unclear if any of those factors played a role in Britain's latest warning. The Foreign Office declined to comment beyond its brief statement.
Somaliland, a former British colony, is a key ally for neighboring Ethiopia, which has an embassy in the enclave, and collaborates with the United States and its allies on anti-terrorism missions. Somaliland employs its own security forces, justice system, and currency but is not recognized as a separate country by the international community.
Somaliland was most recently hit by terror attacks in 2008, when suicide car bombers struck inside the enclave and its neighboring Puntland territory, killing more than 29 people.
Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.
British government travel advice on Somalia: http://bit.ly/cbSix4
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter