New signs of 'second phase' as US military meets Somalia rebel forces

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The US military has been discussing possible terrorist targets with rebel forces in Somalia, amid signs that America could be preparing for the second phase of its anti-terror campaign.

It was claimed yesterday that five US officers visited rebel forces on Sunday and discussed a number of potential targets as well as the possible co-operation of the anti-government warlords.

While the Pentagon declined to comment on the visit, a source close to the warlords, said: "They were discussing whether they know of any terrorist bases in south and southwest Somalia. They discussed possible co-operation if they make an operation in Somalia."

There has been widespread speculation that the US could turn its attentions to a number of other countries, once its campaign in Afghanistan has been completed. Somalia ­ where 18 US soldiers were killed in an ill-fated military operation in 1993 ­ has been identified as containing a number of al-Qa'ida operatives.

The source said that the warlords from the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA) ­ a faction opposed to the country's fledgling government ­ identified a training camp for militants close to the border with neighbouring Kenya, run by the Somali group, al-Itihad al-Islamiya. The US placed the group on a list of terrorist organisations after the 11 September 11 attacks, because of their suspected links with the al-Qa'ida network.

The US officers were, according to the sources, accompanied by four Ethiopian officers. Somalia's government has accused neighbouring Ethiopia of backing the RRA.

Yesterday, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, warned that it would be wrong to expect an imminent military operation in Somalia, although al-Qa'ida operatives in countries other than Afghanistan were being watched.

He said: "People mention Somalia for obvious reasons.Our focus is on Afghanistan. There is a great danger that if we lose our focus, if we try to spread our net too far, we lose our focus which has to be kept."

In Kenya, an alleged senior al-Qa'ida member accused of taking part in the bombing three years ago of the American embassy in Nairobi has been arrested. Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, who was included on a list of America's 22 most wanted terrorists released in October by President George Bush, was detained on Kenya's border with Somalia.

Mr Swedan is accused of helping to destroy the US embassy in the Kenyan capital on 7 August 1998 ­ an attack which killed more than 219 people, including 12 Americans, and coincided with a similar bomb attack on the the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Mr Swedan is named on an indictment, which also lists Osama bin Laden as mastermind of the attack. He is said to have bought the truck which was loaded with explosives and detonated outside the embassy.