NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somaliland's 15-year quest for independence may turn violent if the African Union fails to address the breakaway Somali enclave's case, including granting it observer status, a think-tank said on Wednesday.
A former British protectorate with semi-desert terrain roughly the size of England, Somaliland declared independence in 1991 after warlords toppled Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
But the world has not recognised it, Africa prefers to respect old colonial borders to avoid fanning secession conflicts, and Somalia's interim government claims sovereignty.
That leaves the government on an eventual collision course with Somaliland authorities, while the presence of a "vocal minority" of Somalilanders and "a violent network of jihadi Islamists" in favour of unity, adds further risk, the influential International Crisis Group (ICG) warned.
"The AU needs to engage in preventive diplomacy now, laying the groundwork for resolution of the dispute before it becomes a confrontation from which either side views violence as the only exit," it said in a new report.
The mainly Muslim area of northwestern Somalia is relatively peaceful -- certainly compared to the anarchic south and east of Somalia -- and has held elections as well as set up functioning institutions like a police force and parliament.
The ICG said support was growing for Somaliland's case.
The fact that it is a functioning constitutional democracy distinguishes it from the majority of entities with secessionist claims, and a small but growing number of governments and the West have shown sympathy for its cause," it said.
A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world," it added.
Somaliland's formal claim to sovereignty is based on the five days in 1960 when it was independent from Britain before joining the rest of Somalia.
Most international bodies have preferred to focus on trying to stabilise Somalia before addressing the Somaliland issue
"This approach risks both sides becoming more entrenched and the dispute over Somali unity more intractable," ICG said.
If the (interim government's) authority expands, the dispute over Somaliland's status is likely to become an ever-increasing source of friction, involving serious danger of violent conflict."
The ICG noted that the interim government's request for a U.N. arms embargo to be lifted so it can arm itself has infuriated Somaliland's government. "(It) has threatened to increase its own military strength if this happens," it said.
Adding to the tensions, Islamic extremists from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, sought unsuccessfully to disrupt last year's parliamentary elections with bombs, according to Somaliland.
ICG urged the AU to appoint a special envoy for Somaliland to work out options in six months. "Pending final resolution of the dispute, (it should) grant Somaliland interim observer status, so both sides can attend sessions on Somali issues."