Somaliland Interior Minister Ishmael Aden said on Friday that police had arrested "an internationally known", Afghan-trained leader of Osama bin Ladin's network along with a second al-Qaida member after an overnight shootout in the capital Hargeisa.

"We have captured two members of al-Qaida and about four others fled the area," he said.

"Their leader, who was among those we arrested, is an internationally known fighter for al-Qaida who has been in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

He and other officials declined to name either suspect for security reasons but Aden said he planned to call a news conference on Saturday to announce details of the operation, including the identities of those arrested.

Officers wounded

Aden said three police officers were wounded in the firefight that erupted when they raided the group's hideout in central Hargeisa and that authorities had recovered a large cache of weapons and communications equipment during the raid.

Somaliland officials suspect plot
to disrupt the 29 September polls

"We captured heavy anti-tank weapons, rifles, other assorted ammunition and high frequency communication equipment," he said.

A senior Somaliland police officer said the members of the alleged al-Qaida cell had put up fierce resistance when confronted by authorities in the raid that began around midnight (0300 GMT Friday) and lasted for four hours.

"They are dangerous and well-trained, considering the way they fought back," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"They were about six against a large number of policemen."

The plan

Aden said authorities believed the cell had travelled to Somaliland from Mogadishu several days ago to mount attacks on local leaders and foreign aid workers to disrupt the region's 29 September elections.

"We have captured two members of al-Qaida and about four others fled the area"

Ishmael Aden,
Somaliland Interior Minister

"They came to harm or kill the leaders of Somaliland, international expatriates working here and to disrupt the democratic elections in Somaliland," he said, adding that the raid was launched after a tip-off from local residents.

"We also recovered a video in which the leader of the group complains that Somaliland has become a haven for foreigners," Aden said.

Possible motive

In addition, he said the cell aimed to break into a prison and free 10 inmates now standing trial for alleged involvement in the 2003 murders of an Italian aid worker and a British husband-and-wife team of schoolteachers in Somaliland.

"We suspect they wanted to free the men who are in prison on suspicion of killing the aid workers," Aden said.

Police said they had stepped up security around the Hargeisa prison to thwart any breakout attempt.

Somaliland, in northwestern Somalia, unilaterally declared independence from the rest of the country after the 1991 ouster of strongman Mohamed Siad Barre plunged the Horn of Africa nation into anarchy.