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Somalia's Puntland region executes suspected Islamist militants

BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Somalia's northern Puntland province executed 13 suspected al Qaeda-linked militants on Tuesday, a military court official said, and security forces deployed heavily in the coastal city of Bosasso to ward off any reprisal attacks.

Squeezed out of their strongholds in southern and central Somalia by a military offensive, al Shabaab rebels have slowly infiltrated Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that had largely avoided being caught up in successive Islamist insurgencies.

"We shot to death 13 prisoners including a woman," Abdifatah Haji Aden, chairman of Puntland's military court, told reporters in Bosasso.

"They all pleaded guilty to being al Shabaab members and carrying out the killings of several prominent clerics in the region."

Al Shabaab said Puntland had not detained any of their combatants. Those shot dead by firing squad were innocent civilians, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for the rebels' military operations, told Reuters.

Puntland's authorities act largely independently of the Mogadishu government as the country emerges from two decades of civil conflict that has left it without an effective central administration.

Under pressure from African Union peacekeeping troops and Somali government forces, al Shabaab has lost many of its major urban redoubts in south-central Somalia in the past two years.

Officials say many fighters have taken up positions in the mountains west of Bosasso in Puntland.

A U.N. monitoring group warned last year that insurgents were receiving weapons from distribution networks linked to Iran and Yemen. Most weapons, the group said, were coming into northern Somalia.

(Reporting by Abdiqani Hassan; Writing by Richard Lough; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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