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Somalia expels Ethiopian envoy amid naval base dispute

A Somali woman carries their flag during a march against the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal along KM4 street in Mogadishu

By Giulia Paravicini

NAIROBI (Reuters) -Somalia said on Thursday it was expelling Ethiopia's ambassador, closing two Ethiopian consulates and recalling its own ambassador to Addis Ababa amid a dispute over Ethiopia's plan to build a naval base in the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Nebiyu Tedla said Ethiopia did not have any information on the matter, which was first officially announced by Somalia's prime minister's office.

"This follows ... the actions of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which infringe upon Somalia's sovereignty and internal affairs," Somalia's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Somalia has given Ethiopia's ambassador 72 hours to leave the country and ordered the closure of the Ethiopian consulates in Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, the foreign ministry said.

Senior officials from Somaliland and Puntland, which is engaged in another constitutional dispute with Mogadishu, said the edicts would not apply in their territories.

"The embassy shall remain open irrespective of what Mogadishu says," Rhoda Elmisaid, Somaliland's deputy foreign minister, told Reuters in a private message sent via the social media platform X. "Somaliland is an independent sovereign nation."

Mohamud Aydid Dirir, Puntland's information minister, told the Voice of America Somali radio service: "Somalia's decision will not work. It cannot shut the consulates in Puntland and Somaliland."

Two Somali officials said the moves were linked to a dispute over a memorandum of understanding landlocked Ethiopia agreed to on Jan. 1 to lease 20 km (12 miles) of coastline in Somaliland - a part of Somalia which claims independence and has had effective autonomy since 1991.

Ethiopia said it wanted to set up a naval base there and offered possible recognition of Somaliland in exchange - prompting a defiant response from Somalia and fears the deal could further destabilise the Horn of Africa region.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud previously called the port deal illegal and said in February his country would "defend itself" if Ethiopia were to go ahead with it.

Tensions between Mogadishu and Puntland also rose over the weekend when Puntland's state council said it had withdrawn from the country's federal system and would govern itself independently in a dispute over constitutional changes.

Somalia's move to expel the ambassador and shut down the consulates raises concerns over the fate of 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission fighting militants from al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate.

Mohamud said in February he did not plan to kick them out.

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Writing by George Obulutsa,Editing by Bate Felix, Hereward Holland, Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie)