Four-nation effort targets Al-Qaida forces in Somalia
By Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali
McClatchy Washington Bureau, MercuryNews
NAIROBI, Kenya, 10 Jan - The United States, Ethiopia, the transitional Somalian government and Kenya coordinated land, sea and air operations Tuesday against Al-Qaida operatives and remnants of Somalia's defeated Islamist militias in a southern corner of the war-ravaged African nation, U.S. and Somalian officials said.
U.S. participation in the effort marked a significant step-up in the Bush administration's anti-terrorist operations in the strategic Horn of Africa, where a 1,800-strong U.S. task force has been involved largely in aid and reconstruction work for the past five years.
The Boston Globe, quoting U.S. military and intelligence officials, reported that U.S. Special Forces have been deployed on the ground to track suspected Al-Qaida members near the Kenyan border.
A U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the special forces accompanied Ethiopian troops into Somalia roughly two weeks ago, the Globe reported.
A Somalian lawmaker said 31 civilians, including a newlywed couple, died in a Tuesday assault by two helicopters near Afmadow, a town in a forested area close to the Kenyan border. The report could not be independently verified.
A Somalian Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but witnesses told the Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment on the helicopter strike.
U.S. officials said they did not know whether any Al-Qaida operatives were killed Sunday in a U.S. airstrike -- the first known U.S. offensive action in Somalia in more than a decade -- or in other encounters over the past few days.
``We have nothing that gives us truth. There's lots of speculation,'' said a U.S. official in Washington who requested anonymity because the operations were ongoing. ``We know who we thought we were targeting, and . . . we don't know who we hit.''
But unconfirmed reports said that Ethiopian forces, operating with U.S. intelligence support, might have killed a senior Al-Qaida member on Monday.
The Al-Qaida members being targeted included a key operative in East Africa and two men wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people.
Also being targeted were senior leaders of the Council of Islamic Courts, an Islamist movement that controlled much of Somalia until it was routed this month by Ethiopian forces that intervened on behalf of the Transitional Federal Government, a U.N.-recognized alliance of clan strongmen.
The transitional government endorsed the U.S. operations against the Islamists.
``The U.S. has the right to defend itself and bomb terrorists they say are responsible for the bombing of their embassies,'' President Abdullahi Yusuf said in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that an AC-130, a cargo aircraft outfitted with advanced night-vision technology and a 105mm canon and other powerful guns, fired at unidentified senior Al-Qaida figures in southern Somalia on Sunday.
Intelligence ``led us to believe we had principal Al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them,'' said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. ``We're going to remain committed to reducing terrorist capabilities where and when we find them.''
Whitman declined to identify the targets or say whether they were killed or wounded.
The attack took place in the remote Afmadow district, a forested region near the border with Kenya, which has deployed security forces to seal the frontier.
Residents contacted by telephone reported hearing two low-flying helicopters fire rockets into dense woods in the same area late Monday afternoon. The Islamists sustained heavy casualties, they said.
U.S. officials in Washington said they knew of no U.S. combat operations after Sunday's strike, but added that Ethiopian helicopters and ground forces were operating in the area.
Two U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because the matter was classified, said they had credible but unconfirmed reports that Ethiopian troops might have killed one of the wanted senior Al-Qaida operatives in a firefight on Monday.
They identified him as Abu Talha al-Sudani, reputedly the head of Al-Qaida's network in Somalia.
Labels: Berita, Luar Negeri, Somalia