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Leader of Somalia's breakaway Somaliland says deal with Ethiopia will allow it to build a naval base

A variety of regional and international groups allege that Somaliland's agreement to grant maritime access to landlocked Ethiopia is a violation of international law.

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The president of Somalia's breakaway region of Somaliland has said his government will press ahead with an agreement signed earlier this month with landlocked Ethiopia to give it access to the sea by way of Somaliland’s coastline.

The deal has been condemned by regional and international groups, as well as Western countries, which say it interferes with Somalia’s territorial integrity and is causing tensions that could threaten stability in the Horn of Africa region.

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Somalia has also protested the deal as a threat to its sovereignty by Somaliland, a region strategically located along the Gulf of Aden that broke away from Somalia in 1991 as the country collapsed into warlord-led conflict. Somaliland has not been internationally recognized.

Somaliland's President Muse Bihi Abdi gave more details about the memorandum of understanding he signed on Jan. 1 with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in an interview with Somaliland National Television on Wednesday.

Ethiopia, Abdi said, is seeking to lease a segment of the coastline for a naval base — and not for commercial activities as previously thought. In exchange for leasing a 20 kilometer- (12.4 mile-) stretch of Somaliland's coastline, Ethiopia would recognize Somaliland as an independent state.

Ethiopia will still be able to conduct its import and export activities through the port of Berbera, the largest in Somaliland. Berbera is not part of the coastline stretch planned for the lease.

With a population of more than 120 million, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It lost its access to the sea when Eritrea seceded in 1993. Since then, Ethiopia has been using the port in neighboring Djibouti for most of its imports and exports.

Somalia has protested vehemently against the agreement that would grant Ethiopia access to the strategically important Gulf of Aden and beyond that, to the Red Sea.

Somaliland's citizens are divided over the deal, with some seeing potential economic benefits while others fear compromising their sovereignty. The breakaway region's defense minister, Abdiqani Mohamud Ateye, resigned over the deal.

Earlier this month, a meeting of officials from the African Union, European Union and United States reaffirmed their support for Somalia's sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, including the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Michael Hammer, U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said during that meeting that the U.S. is particularly concerned that tensions over the deal could undermine international-backed efforts to combat al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia.

Matt Bryden, a strategic consultant at Sahan Research, a think tank based in Kenya, said several diverse actors in the region could unite against the agreement — including Egypt, Eritrea and even the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants — and oppose a more powerful role of Ethiopia.

"Eritrea is likely to be deeply concerned, given its deteriorating relationship with Ethiopia and its long Red Sea coastline," Bryden said.

Egypt, embroiled in a dispute with Ethiopia over Addis Ababa's construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam that Cairo says could hamper its share of the Nile River water, could also oppose the project, he added.

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