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Manhunt in Somalia to continue

U.S. officials assess reports that strikes this week killed a leader of Al Qaeda who is wanted in several bombings.

January 10, 2007|Josh Meyer and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday that it would continue its aggressive hunt for suspected terrorists in Somalia, amid unconfirmed reports that a U.S. airstrike or follow-up attacks killed an Al Qaeda leader wanted in connection with several bombings in East Africa.

Two U.S. counter-terrorism officials said analysts were assessing reports from Somalia that Abu Taha al Sudani, one of three operatives sought in connection with the bombing of a Kenya hotel in 2002 and strikes against Israeli airliners, had been killed.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.

Abdirizak Hassan, chief of staff for Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf, said suspected Al Qaeda cell leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and three leaders of the fleeing Islamic Courts Union had been killed.

The Pentagon confirmed that an Air Force AC-130 gunship fired Sunday at what U.S. officials called a terrorist hide-out in a forested area near the southern border with Kenya, after "credible intelligence" indicated that senior Al Qaeda leaders were there.

"As we pursue the war on terror we will seek out, attempt to identify, locate, capture and, if necessary, kill terrorists ... to thwart their activities," Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "We are also going after those who harbor and provide safe haven for terrorists and their activities."

Targets of airstrike?

Whitman would not say whether Al Sudani, Mohammed or a third suspect, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, were the targets of the airstrike or whether any of them had been killed or injured.

If a top leader had been killed, the U.S. counter-terrorism officials said, it would mark a significant victory in a war on terrorism that had not netted a leading Al Qaeda suspect since the targeted killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq last summer.

Authorities described Al Sudani as a senior Al Qaeda operative in East Africa and a close associate of cell leader Mohammed, who also is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

The reports differed over whether Al Sudani was killed by the airstrike or in subsequent sweeps by the Ethiopian military, the U.S. officials said.

One official described the intelligence as an "unconfirmed report suggesting it is a possibility" that Al Sudani was killed. The second U.S. official said the intelligence suggested a stronger possibility. "There are some signs of that, some indications," he said.

The U.S. officials discounted reports that Mohammed had been killed.

Hassan, the presidential chief of staff, said the slain Islamic Courts Union officials included Sheik Abduallahi Moalim Ali, former chief of security in Mogadishu, and Abdirahman Janaqow, deputy chairman of the Islamic courts. He did not identify the third slain official. He said Ethiopian troops had retrieved bodies from the airstrike area.

U.S. stands by its action

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack defended the U.S. intervention in Somalia.

"Very clearly, the U.S. government has had a concern that there are terrorists and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Somalia," he said. "We have a great interest in seeing that those individuals not be able to flee to other locations."

McCormack said Somalia needed a "significantly larger" regional peacekeeping force than the one scheduled to deploy there.

A senior Pentagon official said it could be weeks or months before it was known who was killed in Sunday's airstrike, which marked the first overt American military intervention in the Horn of Africa nation since the U.S. withdrew its troops from a peacekeeping operation in 1994 after the deaths of 18 American troops.

Analysts said they thought the U.S. actions would be limited and short-lived, and would not include ground forces.

"The strike has less to do with Somalia longer-term than [that] it was a superb target of opportunity for the U.S. to try to take some people out," said Harvard professor Robert I. Rotberg, director of the Kennedy School of Government's Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution.

"We have no interests," Rotberg said. "It would be damaging for the U.S. to put any boots on the ground, for domestic as well as international reasons."

The U.S. military has been patrolling Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline since last month, when Ethiopian-led troops helped Somalia's transitional government seize control of Mogadishu, the capital, from the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders.

After abandoning Mogadishu, hundreds of Islamic fighters fled south toward the Kenyan border, where they have been cornered in recent days by Somalian and Ethiopian troops, and blocked from crossing into Kenya by that nation's forces.

Somalian officials and witnesses say at least five villages in southern Somalia have been targeted in strikes over the last three days. One village, Afmadow, was reportedly struck a second time Tuesday.

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