By Yara Bayoumy
GAROWE, Puntland (Reuters) - Somalia's al Qaeda-linked militants are moving north into the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, long regarded as a relatively peaceful area, after having been squeezed out of their strongholds further south, the president of Puntland said.
Until now, Puntland has largely escaped the worst of the upheaval in Somalia, which has been deprived of an effective central government for the past two decades.
The region is rich in energy resources and oil exploration companies are sizing it up. If the militants were able to establish a permanent presence in the area, it might discourage such exploration efforts.
Although militant numbers are still limited, the authorities fear al Shabaab could gain better access to weapons coming across the Gulf of Aden if it successfully regrouped in the area.
"Their presence has intensified since international forces pushed them in the south. The fighters are coming from the south," Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole told Reuters at the weekend.
"We believe that there are ... more than 400 (fighters) in those areas," he said in Garowe, Puntland's administrative capital, on the sidelines of a visit by the European Union ambassador to Somalia during which a $200 million aid package was announced.
Under pressure from African Union (AMISOM) peacekeeping troops and Somali government forces, al Shabaab has lost many of its major urban strongholds in south-central Somalia since it launched a rebellion against the Western-backed government in 2007.
The rebels, who want to impose their strict interpretation of sharia Islamic law across the Horn of Africa state, withdrew from the capital Mogadishu in August last year and lost their last major bastion of Kismayu six weeks ago.
Farole said most of the fighters have taken up positions in the mountains west of Bossaso, an area that is hard to reach because of its difficult terrain.
Farole said the authorities had captured two shipments of explosives from Yemen in the past few months. In the most recent seizure, the boat had been laden with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank mines and other munitions.
The incident raised concern about possible cooperation between Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda earlier this year.
"It was enough to destroy Puntland," Farole told Reuters in the courtyard of the main government house where Somalia and Puntland's flags were displayed.
"It is easy to ship arms and ammunition and explosives (from) that area," said Farole, who believes AQAP and al Shabaab share links.
Farole said he needed international help to train and equip his security forces, lamenting how such support was focused solely on the Mogadishu government to help it fight al Shabaab.
The EU's special envoy to Somalia, Michele Cervone d'Urso, said he was worried about the security situation in Puntland.
"While AMISOM is advancing in the south, al Shabaab has not been defeated ... they have been moving to other areas, including the mountainous areas of Puntland," he said.
"There are significant areas of Puntland which are difficult to control for these security forces, that's the main challenge there and hence they're able to find specific areas (that are) potential safe havens," he said.
Since withdrawing from most of the territory they used to control, al Shabaab has resorted to asymmetrical warfare tactics, and has launched deadly suicide and car bomb attacks across Somalia.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Osborn)