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U.S. careful of civilians in Somalia raid, official says

U.S. special forces had tracked a militant wanted in connection with attacks in East Africa for some time, waiting until he moved away from a populated area before killing him, the official said.

September 16, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Edmund Sanders

WASHINGTON AND NAIROBI, KENYA — The deadly U.S. military strike in Somalia this week, carried out by a team of commandos in helicopters, was designed to limit civilian casualties while targeting an Al Qaeda-linked suspect, American officials said Tuesday.

A U.S. official familiar with details of the raid said the special operations forces had tracked Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for some time, but waited for him to move away from a populated area before attacking.

"We've all learned how important it is to avoid civilian casualties," the official said. "In both counterinsurgency operations and specific counter-terrorism strikes, we have striven, particularly in recent months, to be as precise as possible."

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the U.S. government is not publicly acknowledging Monday's strike.

During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. military struck at targets in Somalia several times with cruise missiles. Those strikes were blamed for killing dozens of civilians and stirred anti-American sentiment.

President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the leader of Somalia's transitional government, has urged the U.S. and African Union troops to use more precise tactics in dealing with insurgents, Somali government officials said.

But Ahmed has also been calling upon the U.S. and other countries to assist him in defeating Shabab, an insurgent group in southern Somalia that has employed terrorist tactics against the transitional government. In May the U.S. provided more than 40 tons of weapons, enabling the government to launch an offensive against Shabab this summer that retook several cities along the Ethiopian border.

Nabhan was believed to be an Al Qaeda cell leader as well as a leader of Shabab.

"The people of Somalia benefit and the American people benefit by having this guy removed," the U.S. official said.

A Shabab commander, who also did not want to be identified, condemned the attack and called the U.S. "the enemy of God."

Special operations forces flew in helicopters and used .50-caliber machine guns to destroy the vehicle Nabhan and his associates were traveling in. The commandos touched down on the ground briefly to retrieve the bodies of Nabhan and others.

Most officials in Somalia's transitional government were caught unaware by the U.S. attack and learned about it through news reports. The strike occurred at mid-day near the coastal town of Baraawe in southern Somalia.

Witnesses said they saw at least four helicopters descend upon the militants' vehicle about 95 miles south of Mogadishu, the capital, in an area long controlled by the Shabab militia.

"They killed those onboard and took the bodies with them," said Mohamed Hassan, an elder in the village outside Baraawe where the strike occurred.

Shabab commanders in Somalia said six of its fighters were killed, including Nabhan; Sheik Hussein Ali Fidow, head of Shabab's political affairs; and a secretary to Shabab chief Sheik Muktar Abu Zubeyr.

Nabhan, believed to be about 30 years old, was accused of being one of the ringleaders of the East African cell of Al Qaeda. A Kenyan, he had been living as a fugitive in Somalia since 2002, after he helped plan and execute a truck bombing of a resort near the Kenyan port city of Mombasa and a simultaneous, but unsuccessful, attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter airliner.

His leadership role in Shabab has been low-key, though he is believed to have played a part in bringing foreign fighters into Somalia and forging closer ties between Shabab and Al Qaeda. In recent months, Shabab has been suffering from an internal dispute between those who want to keep the group's activities focused on Somalia and those trying to expand the group's mission to include foreign fighters and a global anti-Western agenda.

Shabab became a major force in Somalia in 2006, when it provided the foot soldiers for the takeover of southern Somalia by the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders. After Ethiopian troops defeated the courts union in December 2006 and installed the transitional government in Mogadishu, Shabab launched an insurgency.

The militants called for a strict Islamic government and, in areas under their control, have imposed harsh religious rule, including public stonings and amputations. U.S. officials remain profoundly worried about a large swath of Somalia that remains out of government control. Officials said they thought several important Al Qaeda leaders remained active in Somalia.

"There is a constant concern about ungoverned territories and areas where there is a lack of both police and law enforcement and military capabilities, and where either homegrown [groups] or Al Qaeda and its affiliates can take root," said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "Somalia is definitely one of those areas that remains on the high concern list in terms of providing territory for the adversary to take root in. It's high on the list of countries of interest."

Though analysts said the attack demonstrated that U.S. intelligence has made inroads penetrating Somalia's famously complex clan networks, others worried about the ramifications the strike might have for several Western hostages being held in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia, including a French military advisor and two journalists.

After the assassination last year of Shabab leader Aden Hashi Ayro, insurgents retaliated by killing and attacking Western aid workers.

Ahmed's government is the latest in a string of administrations seeking to restore peace to the Horn of Africa nation, which has lacked a functioning government since 1991.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Josh Meyer and Greg Miller in the Washington bureau and a special correspondent in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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