By Karen DeYoung and Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Two days after the United States launched an airstrike against alleged al-Qaeda terrorists in southern Somalia, U.S. officials declined yesterday to provide details of who, or what, was hit.
In Mogadishu, the Somali capital, reports circulated that as many as 50 people, many of them civilians, were killed in the attack by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship. U.S. officials said they are fairly certain that at least one targeted individual was hit; they said they had no information about civilian deaths in the strike along the Kenyan border.
Several officials suggested that stories reaching Mogadishu of many deaths and continuing U.S. attacks had confused the airstrike with ongoing operations in the area by Ethiopia's military, including helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. But it was impossible to confirm independently any of the widely differing accounts in Mogadishu or in Washington. The officials agreed to discuss the attack only on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed yesterday that a single airstrike occurred on Sunday, targeting "what we believe to be principal al-Qaeda leadership." Officials said that no further information would be released until U.S. personnel could assess directly the results of the strike and identify any dead.
"Let me draw a parallel with a domestic crime scene," one official said. "Imagine that complicated by 100, and that gives you an idea of what we're having to deal with."
Direct U.S. access to the area, where fleeing Islamic fundamentalist forces are being pursued on the ground and from the air by the Ethiopians, is viewed as problematic but necessary.
A principal target of the airstrike was Abu Talha al-Sudani, a Sudanese who U.S. officials have said is a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden and a key figure in an East African al-Qaeda cell based in Somalia.
Officials cautioned against reports that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, two other al-Qaeda operatives said to be responsible for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, may have been killed in the attack.
Also on the U.S. and Ethiopian target list, officials said, are Somali fundamentalist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former head of a militant group accused of links to al-Qaeda in the 1990s, and several other Somali Islamic leaders described as terrorists.
"I don't think anybody has packed up and gone home," another official said of U.S. operations in the area.
The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was moved into the Indian Ocean near the Somali coast to provide assistance, if needed, to the AC-130 on Sunday, and to use its aircraft to pinpoint the location of targets on land or sea. Four other U.S. naval vessels from the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet are in the area.
In the chaos of Mogadishu, where invading Ethiopian troops routed the Islamic fundamentalists last month and installed an internationally backed transitional government, word of the U.S. attack provoked rage and anti-Americanism.
"I am angry," biology teacher Ahmed Weli Mohamed, 37, said in a telephone interview. "I am very, very angry. Even if there are terrorists, there are maybe two or three people, but hundreds are killed. . . . Americans don't respect us as human."
The news made shop owner and retired Somali soldier Hussein Farah Guley, 56, recall the early 1990s, when U.S. troops were part of a U.N. force that monitored a cease-fire in the country. Among the many foreigners killed by warring Somali clans during that period were 18 U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers, who were attacked in Mogadishu after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in 1993.
"The Somalis, they will get angry," Guley said, "and if they see anyone from the outside, they will kill them."
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's transitional government, which U.S. officials said gave permission for the airstrike, is perceived by many Somalis as having interrupted a months-long period of unusual calm. The government is also seen as being too closely aligned with its leadership's clan and with outsiders, particularly Ethiopia and the United States. Although many rejected the stern religious laws imposed by the Islamic fundamentalists, who came to power last summer after driving out U.S.-funded warlords, they appreciated a new semblance of order.
Somalis have already begun to express anger toward Ethiopian troops. Last night, a former police building in the capital, now occupied by the Ethiopians, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a speeding car. One Ethiopian and one Somali soldier were killed, and three civilians were injured.
The United States is leading an effort to deploy an African peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopians, and it is pressing Gedi's government to open talks with Islamic leaders who are seen as moderates. No progress was reported on either front yesterday. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said a possible U.N. force is also being "actively discussed."
McCrummen reported from Nairobi. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.