More than two dozen people were killed during heavy fighting in Somalia’s semi-autonomous state of Puntland.

Clashes broke out on Tuesday in the state capital Garowe as the local parliament debated changes to the voting system.

At least 26 people died, 16 of them soldiers, while 30 others were wounded, said Dr Abdirsak Ahmed who works at Garowe Public Hospital where some of the bodies were taken.

Three other witnesses described heavy fighting that erupted after opposition groups accused Puntland’s leader, Said Abdullahi Deni, of seeking constitutional changes that would extend his term in office beyond January next year, or help tip the ballot in his favour.

The Puntland government said on Facebook that the regional parliament voted to consider amendments to the constitution, and further debates and votes would take place.

“Fighting erupted immediately after the Puntland parliament voted for a one-man-one-vote election with multiple political parties,” local elder Farah Osman said. “It is a very fierce battle.”

Somalia’s Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre issued an urgent appeal for the rivals to reconcile their differences through dialogue “rather than the barrel of a gun”.

“Puntland was the home of peace and after 20 years of having a government, it is unacceptable to have a war breaking out in its capital,” he said.

‘Fighting over politics’
An arid oil-rich region on the northeastern coast of Somalia, Puntland declared autonomy in 1998 and relations with the central government in Mogadishu have often been tense.

“Anti-aircraft guns and machine guns are raining down around Garowe today. Government forces and other troops and clan militias loyal to opposition politicians are fighting over politics. I closed my shop and ran home,” said shopkeeper Abdullahi Omar.

Abdiweli Hassan, a police officer in Garowe, said civilians were among the dead.

The violence broke out when gunmen loyal to opposition politicians confronted security forces protecting parliament and tried to disrupt the session, Hassan said.

“They have been defeated and the situation in town is calm now,” he said. “No one will be allowed to act above the law.”

Puntland is one of a number of autonomous and semi-autonomous regions in Somalia, where no central authority has fully controlled the entire territory for decades. Clan rivalries and lingering grouses due to colonial legacies have also exacerbated political divisions.

Somaliland, the nearby autonomous region that seceded from Somalia in 1991, is disputing ownership of the city of Las Anod, which the Dhulbahante clan of Puntland claims as its capital. Since February 6 when fighting began in the city, more than 300 people have died and more than 200,000 have been displaced.