'Many dead' as US bombers return to Somalia to attack 'al-Qa'ida suspects'

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The Independent Online

The United States has intervened overtly in Somalia for the first time in more than a decade with high-risk air strikes on suspected al-Qa'ida operatives believed to be hiding alongside defeated Islamist fighters.

The Pentagon said the US Special Operations Command had been pounding remote border areas of Somalia for the past two days. Witnesses reported many dead after an AC-130 aircraft fired on the village of Hayo, near the Kenyan border, on Monday.

The Bush administration claimed last night that "five to 10" people associated with al-Qa'ida had been killed, and a handful of others wounded in the attack, which, according to the Pentagon, was based on "credible intelligence".

Somali officials said US helicopter gunships launch-ed assaults yesterday over the southern tip of Somalia where local and Ethiopian soldiers had pursued the last remnants of the Islamists after ending their six-month rule of Mogadishu. "There are so many dead bodies and animals in the village," one official in Hayo told Reuters. Another said up to 27 people were killed in the strikes.

The aerial assault targeted three al-Qa'ida agents believed by US and Kenyan intelligence to be behind the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 when two co-ordinated attacks left more than 250 dead.

One of them, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed from Comoros, is one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists with a $5m (£2.6m) bounty on his head. He is also alleged to have orchestrated a 2002 suicide attack on a Kenyan resort and the unsuccessful attempt to blow up a tourist airliner heading for Israel as it took off from the Kenyan city of Mombasa.

The Pentagon did not confirm or deny whether Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan or Abu Taha al-Sudani were among the casualties. The Somali President, Abdullahi Yusuf, who on Monday entered Mogadishu under heavy protection for the first time since his appointment in 2004, condoned the air-strikes saying the US, "had the right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies".

The Somali Information Minister, Ali Ahmed Jama "Jangali", said: "The Islamists are hiding in the thick jungle and it's only airstrikes that eliminate them from there. The strikes... will continue until no terrorist survives."

Though many suspected America's tacit backing of an Ethiopia-led war against the Islamists, Sunday's air-strike was the first solid evidence of it. It was the first known direct US military intervention in Somalia since the disastrous "Black Hawk Down" incident in 1993 in which 18 American Rangers died while on a mission to capture aides of Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed in Mogadishu. The sight of the bodies of two Rangers being dragged through the streets horrified Americans and prompted a US withdrawal.

Diplomats and analysts in Nairobi said the renewed US military involvement in the Horn of Africa is consistent with America's post-September 11 counter-terrorism policy. "This was no real surprise. It's a continuation of their policy to track down and apprehend people they consider members of al-Qa'ida terrorist cells" said Bethuel Kip-lagat, Kenya's former special envoy to Somalia.

Yesterday, the US Navy confirmed that the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower was in Somali waters to bolster a naval cordon preventing the Islamists escaping by sea. As US jets continued carrying out reconnaissance missions above the closed-off border with Kenya, Mogadishu remained "tense but calm", according to one resident, as militia-run checkpoints sprang up across the city and warlords re-emerged from hiding to capitalise on the security vacuum.

Rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a building in Mogadishu housing Ethiopian and Somali government troops, where at least one person died in an attack over the weekend.

President Yusuf has played down suggestions that he is ready to engage the deposed Islamist leaders in political dialogue, despite his own calls for reconciliation between Somalia's feuding clans. The US and the Somali interim government claim al-Qa'ida operatives were offered protection by the Union of Islamic Courts after the Islamists took control of Mogadishu from CIA-backed warlords in June last year - an allegation vehemently denied by the Islamists.

Al-Qa'ida's number two has already urged Muslims to wage an Iraq-style insurgency in Somalia with a call for "martyrdom". One Western diplomat said while only a small minority of the Islamist leaders could be considered extremists, the US perceived the Islamic Courts to be "the bad guys".

The defeat of the Union of Islamic Courts presented the US with a chance to try to remove what it regards as a serious threat from al-Qa'ida in the region.

"There was a small political window of opportunity for the Americans [to take out the al-Qa'ida suspects] but they had to act quickly," the diplomat said.

It may take several days for the US intelligence community to confirm whether the targets were killed. "If there are identifiable foreigners, al-Qa'ida operatives, it will be a vindication [for US foreign policy]. If those killed were just Somali militia loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts then it will go down as another blunder in US counter-terrorism efforts," said Matt Bryden, a senior consultant with the US-based International Crisis Group. The concern, analysts say, is that a misguided US foreign policy risks spilling the conflict over Somali borders and into the rest of the volatile region.