The UK is providing training and support to a Somaliland counterterrorism unit accused of unlawful killings and political intimidation, according to members of Somaliland's parliament.
The Rapid Reaction Unit (RRU), a Somaliland paramilitary counter-terror squad established in 2012, was deployed by President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud's administration on November 15 to prevent opposition members of parliament (MPs) from entering parliament in order to influence a vote, members of Somaliland's parliament told VICE News.
A report by Somaliland's Human Rights Center, published Tuesday, also blamed the RRU for the deaths of at least two demonstrators after soldiers allegedly fired at a group of them indiscriminately. MPs confirmed that the RRU had been accused of killing protestors at demonstrations.
Citing "security reasons," the UK Foreign Office will not confirm or deny to VICE News whether it provides assistance to the RRU. However, the British government has previously released details of support, including security equipment, vehicles, a UK-built headquarters, and a pretrial detention facility — all "gifted" as part of its counter-terrorism program.
Abdirahman Mohamed Jama, a Waddani party MP, accused the president of using the paramilitary unit as a personal task force, and said that British forces are regularly witnessed training the RRU at a camp in Hargeisa.
"I have seen with my own eyes that they were training them how to shoot," he said. "I saw them learning how to shoot bullets a month ago at a camp in Hargeisa.
"It's not a secret," he added. "Everybody in Somaliland knows that the British are funding the RRU."
An annual report by the Somaliland Human Rights Center released on Tuesday said that the number of soldiers in the RRU has doubled from 50 to 100 in the last two years.
The RRU uses "unnecessary force" against civilians and "sometimes beat suspects," the report claims.
On December 28, 2013, police and RRU forces opened fire on civilians protesting water shortages in Hargeisa, resulting in the deaths of two demonstrators, the report said.
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On November 15, Jama says that he and 28 opposition MPs were denied entry to parliament in an apparent attempt to influence a vote on a new speaker of the house. RRU and other state security forces numbering around 400 had occupied the building.
Jama described the November 15 incident as "the final demolition of the Somaliland democracy process."
Warning shots were fired, five members of parliament were arrested, and two were "badly beaten" by police, Jama says. All were released without charge several hours later.
"They were trying to prevent people from voting," he said.
The pre-arranged vote did not go ahead after MPs inside the House left in protest, and a quorum was not present.
The speaker of the House of Representatives told VICE News that the security forces attempted to disarm his bodyguards and refuse him entry as he approached parliament.
"Maybe a kilometer away from the House there was a checkpoint with a large number of security forces including the RRU," Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi said. "In order to avoid a clash I decided to continue to my house. They are powerful now. Everybody is afraid."
"We were very lucky we weren't hurt," Jama told VICE News. "The ruling party was very angry of the support we had in parts of Somaliland."
Protests followed the military occupation of parliament, which, according to Jama, led to the deaths of at least three people.
"Whenever there is a protest in Somaliland, they don't use water cannons, they don't use rubber bullets. They use live bullets to disperse a crowd. Bullets kill people," Jama said. "They fired indiscriminately into the crowds."
Jama, who is also a British citizen and former teacher at a number of schools in the London borough of Harrow, said he was "ashamed" of the use of taxpayer money to fund the "oppressive" force.
"I urge the UK government to review its funding and support to the RRU," he said.
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Britain's counter-terrorism operations have recently come under scrutiny following an investigation by Al Jazeera that unearthed allegations by Kenyan anti-terror police that the UK provided training, equipment, and intelligence to an assassination squad that has carried out nearly 500 extrajudicial killings.
Somaliland receives millions in aid from the UK. The country declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has been cautiously celebrated as a beacon of democracy within the fragile state, following five elections.
The UK government's Department for International Development (DfID) describes it as "more stable than the rest of the country," but states that development needs "remain high." Journalists are regularly arrested and detained.
VICE News contacted Somaliland's ruling Kulmiye party for comment but did not receive a response.
"We are not able to provide detail on our counter-terrorism program funding for operational security reasons, however any HMG funding is delivered in line with HMG's Overseas Security and Assistance Guidance and is regularly reviewed to ensure compliance with international human rights," a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said. "We believe that respect for human rights is an integral part of any effective approach to counter-terrorism."
Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant