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Somalia and Turkey strike defense deal to deter Ethiopia’s access to sea through breakaway region

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Somalia announced on Wednesday a defense deal with Turkey that includes support for the Horn of Africa nation’s sea assets and appears aimed at deterring Ethiopia’s efforts to secure access to the sea by way of the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding with Somaliland on Jan. 1. The document has rattled Somalia, which said it’s prepared to go to war over it because it considers Somaliland part of its territory. Somaliland says Ethiopia agreed to recognize its independence in return for a naval port.

Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre described the defense and economic deal with Turkey as “a historic day for the country,” after the council of ministers approved it.

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“Somalia will have a true ally, a friend, and a brother in the international arena,” he said.

Details of that agreement have not been made public, but Somalia sees such a deal as an act of aggression, even though Somaliland has enjoyed de facto independence for three decades.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told reporters on Saturday that senior officers from Ethiopia’s military were in Somaliland “preparing the ground” for the territory’s annexation.

Ethiopia has not addressed the allegations but its Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has downplayed fear of conflict, telling lawmakers earlier this month that he had “no intention” of going to war with Somalia. With a population of more than 120 million, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world.

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Turkey is a key player in Somalia, one of several Gulf Arab states jockeying for influence in a country that lies on the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden — a pathway to the Red Sea.

Under the deal announced Wednesday, Turkey will provide training and equipment to the Somali navy so it can better safeguard its territorial waters from threats such as terrorism, piracy, and “foreign interference.”

The deal, first signed by the two countries’ defence ministers on Feb. 8, will be in force for a decade, according to Somali authorities.

“For Somalia, it offers crucial support for security and development initiatives, while for Turkey, it represents an opportunity to expand its influence and deepen its engagement in Africa,” said Mohamed H. Gaas, an analyst who heads the think tank Raad Peace Research Institute in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

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