GAROWE, Somalia (Reuters) – The southern Somali state of Jubbaland has blocked access to the capital city Kismayo and its main airport ahead of Thursday’s vote to elect a president of the semi-autonomous region, a senior regional official said on Tuesday.
The move underscores escalating tensions between Jubbaland authorities and the federal Somali government in Mogadishu, which has been seeking to exert control over the election process in the last month.
“We have closed all the approaches to Kismayo to prevent the Somali federal government, which is using all possible ways including Ethiopian forces, to disrupt the Jubbaland election,” Mohamud Sayid Aden, vice president of Jubbland, told Reuters.
On Saturday the Somali government said it would not recognise the result of the election in Jubbaland, a key battleground state for counter-terrorism operations, saying the candidate selection process violated the national constitution.
The stand-off risks sparking a dangerous wider conflict.
Incumbent Jubbaland President Ahmed Mohamed Madobe, who is seeking re-election this week, is a key security partner for Kenya, while Ethiopia has grown closer to the federal government in Mogadishu in the last year.
Both Ethiopia and Kenya have significant numbers of peacekeepers in Somalia.
Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants have been fighting the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government and its international allies for over a decade in a quest to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The stakes for all parties, local and international, are high. With good seasonal rainfall, lush farmlands and the lucrative Kismayo port, Jubbaland is one of Somalia’s more wealthy and stable regions.
As well as providing a friendly buffer-zone for Kenya, its shoreline delineates a hotly contested maritime zone claimed by both Somalia and Kenya with potential oil and gas deposits.
Kenya does not want to lose its ally, Madobe, said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security advisor and founder of the Hiraal Institute, a Mogadishu-based think-tank.
“They installed him and he’s a trusted figure,” he said.
(Reporting by Abdiqani Hassan; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Gareth Jones)