US general says Somalia is potential target

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American military chiefs named Somalia as a potential target for military action yesterday, raising expectations that the east African nation would be the next arena in the war against terrorism.

The direction of American thinking became clearer after two days of informal talks among Nato defence ministers in Brussels. AGerman official said the question was no longer whether America would go after al-Qa'ida terrorists in Somalia, but when and how.

Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, confirmed Somalia as a possible target although he added that action taken would not necessarily mean the use of military force. There were, he said, "countries that worry us because they actively support and harbour [terrorists]. It's one thing to have a cell in your country, it's another to actively support them."

General Myers said: "And Somalia is one potential country – there are others as well – a potential country where you might have diplomatic, law enforcement action or potentially military action. All the instruments of national power, not just one."

Phase two of the campaign was not officially on the Brussels agenda and America has been careful to keep Nato at arm's length during its military action in Afghanistan for fear its consensual style would complicate the military push.

But on Tuesday Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, also named Somalia as one of America's potential targets, with Yemen and Sudan. Somalia was a country where "al-Qa'ida leaders used to spend some time", he said. Pentagon sources insisted that there was "no plan on the table" and that General Myers had not intended to give any specific signal.

Nevertheless such a target would be politically more acceptable for European nations than confronting Iraq, which has also been warned by the US administration against harbouring terrorists. Diplomats believe America is likely to apply more diplomatic pressure on Baghdad to comply with international requirements on weapons of mass destruction before taking more direct action.

Somalia, regarded as a "failed state", is a much softer target. One Nato diplomat said: "Somalia has no real government – it is not a state so much as a loose collection of warring clans with no central government." Whether any American action would involve direct military action or would use local fighters remained unclear.

Abdi Guled Mohamed, Somalia's Transport Minister, was moved by the speculation to declare: "There are no terrorists that we know of in this country." His government, led by Abdiqasim Salat Hassan, has told President Bush it is ready to co-operate in the war against terrorism. America, though, does not recognise the transitional administration.

Mr Guled Mohamed said: "We have said since 11 September that we want to help. If the Americans say there are terrorists in Somalia, they should tell us how they know this. If there are terrorists here, then we will put them in prison, put them where they belong. We will work with the Americans to fight terrorists."

Meanwhile, Yemen moved to head off the threat of a US attack by sending troops led by the son of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to search for Muslim militants linked to al-Qa'ida.