MOGADISHU: At least 100 people are feared dead in a ferocious storm battering Somalia's northeastern Puntland region, the local government said on Monday, warning that hundreds more are missing.
Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole appealed for help from aid agencies.
"A heavy storm hit Bandarbeyle and Eyl towns on Saturday and Sunday. About a hundred people died. Hundreds of houses and livestock were swept by the floods into the ocean," Farole told reporters in the capital Garowe.
"We urge United Nations aid agencies to assist the victims. As Puntland, we have established a committee to investigate the loss and damage. Electricity, communication and fishing boats were all destroyed."
"A tropical cyclone storm (has) wreaked death and destruction... the storm brought high wind speeds and torrential rains, causing flash floods," said a statement from Puntland's semi-autonomous government.
"Information collected from coastal areas via irregular telephone contact over the past 48 hours indicates that up to 100 people might have been killed, while hundreds of other people remain unaccounted for," it added.
The government is organising relief efforts, but also appealed for international support.
"Preliminary information also indicates that homes, buildings, boats and entire villages have been destroyed and over 100,000 livestock lost, endangering the livelihoods of tens of thousands of local people," the government said.
Heavy rains and fierce winds are expected to continue until Wednesday, it added.
Impoverished Puntland, which forms the tip of the Horn of Africa, is run by its own government, although unlike neighbouring Somaliland, it has not declared independence from Somalia.
The often lawless region is also home to numerous warlords, as well as for many years hosting pirate gangs who raided far out into the Indian Ocean.
Somalia has been riven by civil war since the collapse of central government in 1991.
Meanwhile the United Nations said on Monday Somali refugees in Kenya must only return home voluntarily, after signing a deal easing fears of possible forced returns of over half a million refugees.
"Returns should be conducted in safety and dignity," said Raouf Mazou, Kenya representative of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), adding that it would support organised repatriations only when "conditions are right."
The joint deal - inked on Sunday by Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR - comes amid refugee fear of retaliatory attacks following a deadly attack by Somalia's Shebab extremists on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September.
After the attack, several Kenyan officials pointed the finger at the northeastern camp of Dadaab - the world's largest refugee complex hosting over 400,000 people, mainly Somalis fleeing war - as being a "training ground" for extremists.
Rights groups have accused Kenyan police in the past of a brutal campaign against Somali refugees, following a string of grenade attacks or shootings inside Kenya blamed on supporters or members of the Shebab.
"Any refugee has the right to choose whether to go home, after they have been given information about conditions on the ground in Somalia so they can make an informed decision," Mazou added.
Somalia remains riven by war but some areas are more stable, with a 17,000-strong African Union force - including Kenyan troops - wresting a series of towns from the Shebab in recent years.
"We all agree on the need to restore our brothers and sisters from Somalia to their full dignity and normal life," Kenyan Vice-President William Ruto said, speaking at the signing in Nairobi on Sunday.
UNHCR has registered 493,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, but Nairobi claims to hosts double that number.
"It is not the tradition for an African country to complain about visitors, especially those fleeing from danger," Ruto added.
"Even so, the large number of undocumented refugees, as well as the sheer magnitude of the entire refugee burden has created unprecedented security challenges for Kenya." Although Somalia's government remains weak outside the capital, Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adan said her government would work to provide opportunities to encourage refugees to come home.
"My government, with the help of the international community, shall put in place conditions conducive for the return of the refugees," she said.