By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2007
NAIROBI, Jan. 11 -- A small team of American military personnel entered southern Somalia to try to determine exactly who was killed in a U.S. airstrike Monday that targeted suspected al-Qaeda figures thought to be hiding in swampy mangrove forests along the Indian Ocean, U.S. sources said Thursday.
So far, "no one can confirm a high-value target" among the dead, said one U.S. source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But items recovered at the strike site -- a piece of bloody clothing and a document -- indicated that Aden Ayrow, head of the military arm of the deposed Islamic Courts movement, had been at the scene.
The strike killed eight to 10 people suspected of terrorist links, according to another source, a high-ranking U.S. official in the region who spoke Thursday and declined to be identified. The people were fleeing with remnants of the Courts movement, which was swept from power last month by invading Ethiopian forces who installed in its place the country's U.S.-backed transitional government.
The search team marks the first known case of U.S. military boots hitting Somalian soil since a disastrous mission to stabilize the country ended in 1994 after Somali militiamen downed two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in the capital, Mogadishu. It was unclear Thursday if the search team remained inside Somalia.
The air attack was carried out early Monday by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship flying from a base in Djibouti, a tiny Horn of Africa country, as U.S. Navy ships patrolled offshore. By one official's account, the strike was triggered by a cellphone intercept and targeted a convoy of vehicles.
The U.S. military has worked closely with Ethiopian ground and air forces operating in Somalia and has shared intelligence and target lists. But American decision-makers have been cautious about sending U.S. personnel into Somalian territory. In the aftermath of the AC-130 attack, it was seen as a necessary risk in the effort to positively identify the casualties.
After past airstrikes against suspects in other countries, U.S. intelligence officials have often been frustrated at the inability to ascertain the identities of people killed. In many cases, the sites have been off-limits to detailed inspection.
U.S. officials have long said they wanted to kill or capture three al-Qaeda figures they say took shelter in Somalia after organizing the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But officials emphasized Thursday that the U.S. government and Ethiopia have a far longer list of targets that includes Ayrow and other members of the Islamic Courts leadership.
Hassan Dahir Aweys, chairman of the Courts, was put on the U.S. terrorist list in 2001 as the head of a radical group accused of having links to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
Regional analysts have said, however, that the connections between al-Qaeda and the Courts movement are tenuous and hinge on one or two leaders. Other leaders within the Islamic movement were considered moderates, and it is unclear what their fate will be.
Meanwhile, reports from the area surrounding Ras Kamboni, where Monday's strike hit, suggest that 20 civilians may have been killed. The human rights group Amnesty International questioned whether the airstrike violated international law against indiscriminate attacks.
One U.S. official said Thursday that no civilians were killed.
U.S. officials repeatedly emphasized close coordination with the Ethiopian military, saying that continuing air attacks by the Ethiopians in the south were motivated by intelligence reports that one of the three embassy suspects, Abu Talha al-Sudani, a Sudanese, was in the area.
The U.S. military action in the southernmost tip of Somalia has been widely criticized by European diplomats, the U.N. secretary general and the chairman of the 53-member African Union, who are concerned that it will work against efforts to stabilize a country that has been without a central government since 1991.
In the chaotic capital, Mogadishu, the weak transitional government, backed by the United States and Ethiopia, is struggling to assert control in a city still full of Islamic Courts fighters, as well as militias of clans and sub-clans who feel marginalized by the new government and resentful of the presence of Ethiopian soldiers in the city.
Several skirmishes between militiamen and Ethiopian troops have broken out in recent days. Thursday night, a grenade was fired from a truck full of militiamen at a hotel full of government officials, according to reports from the city. There was a brief exchange of gunfire and one hotel security guard was injured.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.