New US air-strikes reported in Somalia

From Reuters, Jan. 24:

MOGADISHU – A U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship has launched a second air strike against suspected al Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified U.S. officials.

No confirmation of Monday’s reported attack was immediately available in the region and a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment. The newspaper said there was no information on the results or the specific targets of the strike.

An AC-130 gunship two weeks ago attacked what Washington said were al Qaeda agents fleeing with Islamist forces defeated by the Somali government and Ethiopian troops late last month. It was the first overt U.S. action in Somalia since the end of a disastrous peacekeeping mission in 1994.

Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said he was not aware of a second U.S. attack. Washington believes Somali Islamists harboured al Qaeda members accused of bombing two U.S. embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel in east Africa.

“I am not aware of that,” Dinari told Reuters. “I will look into it and once I get information I will let you know.”

Any prolonged U.S. intervention in Somalia would be sure to inflame political passions there and in the Horn of Africa region where Muslims have complained of discrimination against them in the name of the “war on terror”.

A freelance Somali journalist said on Sunday he had seen U.S. troops on the ground in south Somalia working with Ethiopian forces hunting fugitive Islamists.

Rumours have swirled for days that U.S. personnel were inside Somalia since the Jan. 8 strike but there has been no official confirmation of a U.S. ground presence.

Islamist leader in Kenya

The Islamists have been pushed into the remote southern tip near Kenya’s border after a lightning December offensive ousted them from Mogadishu and the southern territories they had controlled for six months.

Kenya has in custody top Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. A Kenyan government official said on Wednesday Ahmed would not be deported to Somalia because he would be killed and that he has asked for refuge in Yemen.

Yemen’s foreign minister was quoted as saying this month that some Islamist leaders had arrived there.

“We won’t send him back. He will be killed,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

“(Prime Minister Ali Mohamed) Gedi is in town and we are trying to persuade him to talk to Sheikh Sharif, but he won’t. He (Ahmed) wants to go to Yemen.”

The Kenyan official said Ahmed was under the watch of Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service at a plush hotel in Nairobi’s outskirts.

Dinari declined to comment on the fate of Islamists returned to Somalia. His government has asked Kenya to extradite detained fighters. Many diplomats suspect a Kenyan and U.S. hand in bringing Ahmed in.

At least one Western diplomat dismissed as false reports that he turned himself in at the Kenyan border on Sunday: “He’s been in the shade in Nairobi for at least a week and they have just been figuring out how to handle it.”

Considered a moderate before the war, Ahmed is among those the United States sees as a potential force in reconciliation.

The U.S. embassy in Kenya said Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger planned to meet Ahmed later this week.

“It remains to be seen what Sheikh Sharif’s intentions are,” Ranneberger told the BBC. “He is said to be a moderate person and as an individual he might be able to play a positive role in the future of his country.”

The Islamists and some foreign supporters have vowed to wage guerrilla war against Ethiopian troops in the country, and many Somalis suspect their militants have been behind a spate of attacks in Mogadishu, the latest of which took place on Monday.

Ethiopia said on Tuesday its forces had begun leaving the Horn of Africa nation.

The African Union has approved a nearly 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for Somalia, but experts doubt its capacity to muster it, let alone tame a nation in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

See our last post on Somalia and the Horn of Africa.