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A United Arab Emirates military base in the self-declared republic of Somaliland will begin operating by June and include a coastal-surveillance system, according to a diplomat involved in talks for the facility.

The United Arab Emirates is growing its military presence in the Horn of Africa to help protect trade flows through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a key shipping lane used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels en route to the Suez Canal. The country's footholds in Somaliland and Eritrea provide strategic locations as it supports the Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The surveillance system will be used to protect the base in the Somaliland port town of Berbera and monitor the territory's 500-mile coastline, said Bashe Awil Omar, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Pirates have hijacked vessels off Somaliland's coast, including the seizure of a vessel in March 2017.

"The UAE military base will help the whole region -- piracy, illegal fishing, toxic dumping: we don't have resources to watch our coast," Bashe said in an interview in Somaliland's main city of Hargeisa. "The UAE has become the hub of the whole region in terms of trade. For the UAE to secure that strategic position, it cannot do that if it does not secure the lifeline of trade."

The 16 square-mile facility will consist of a naval base and two parallel runways, he said. Situated adjacent to a port operated by state-owned DP World Ltd., its first runway of 3 miles is almost 60 percent complete, according to Bashe, who moved to the post of ambassador to Kenya in August.

The Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi didn't respond to emailed requests for comment. Abdulla Darwish, managing director of Sharjah-based Divers Marine Contracting, who said in an interview last year that his company was awarded a $90 million construction contract for the base, didn't respond to two requests for comment sent to his mobile phone.

The Somaliland base has been under discussion since 2016, when former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn expressed Ethiopian unease about a United Arab Emirates base being established in the Eritrean port town of Assab and asked the United Arab Emirates to consider switching the facility to Berbera, according to Bashe. Former sworn enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea this year agreed to a rapprochement.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Meles Alem didn't respond to two calls and two text messages seeking comment.

United Nations investigators of sanctions on Eritrea and Somalia said in a draft report to the U.N. Security Council that satellite imagery of Assab indicated the continued presence of multiple naval vessels. It noted the continued expansion of the base.

"Berbera and Assab could be entry points for the UAE ," Bashe said. "Ethiopia is very important to them in terms of trade."

A Section on 11/07/2018

Print Headline: UAE to open Somaliland base in June

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