U.S. Stages 2nd Airstrike in Somalia; Ethiopians Leaving Capital
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; Page A09
A U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship staged an airstrike against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia on Monday, the second such attack this month, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
There was no immediate information on specific targets or the strike's results. The United States has said that at least three senior al-Qaeda operatives were being sheltered by the Islamic Courts movement that was ousted from power in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by the Ethiopian military last month.
Word of the new attack came the same day as a long line of Ethiopian artillery, armored vehicles and trucks loaded with soldiers rolled toward the edges of Mogadishu, beginning a withdrawal from a fragile capital that many residents fear will now slip further into chaos.
A spokesman for Somalia's transitional government, Abdirahman Dinari, said that the Ethiopians may take several weeks to complete a full withdrawal from the country and that a large force would remain on the Ethiopian side of the Somalia-Ethiopia border.
The Ethiopians have remained in the capital to protect the nascent transitional government, which hardly has enough forces to secure the oceanside city.
Without the Ethiopian muscle, Somali officials have a "deep concern" about Islamic fighters who remain hidden in the city and have asserted responsibility for a recent string of attacks against Ethiopian and Somali government troops, Dinari said.
Details of a proposal to send in a peacekeeping force of at least 8,000 troops from other African countries are under negotiation, and many analysts doubt that that number can be mustered. Dinari said an initial force of about 1,000 soldiers from Uganda will probably arrive next week, and others from South Africa, Malawi and Nigeria will follow. The United States has promised airlift and logistics support.
On Monday, European Union officials tied funding for the African Union peacekeepers to the Somali government's willingness to negotiate with certain ousted Islamic leaders, who are thought to be crucial to preventing a full-scale insurgency. U.S. officials have voiced similar concern.
The European demand infuriated the Somali government. Dinari said it only "gives the Islamic fighters a signal" to continue their attacks.
On the streets of the capital Tuesday, people watched and sometimes waved as the Ethiopians rumbled along the sandy road that eventually reaches the Ethiopian border.
"The elements of the Islamists will come back," said Hassan Abdi Aden, 45, who was eating lunch nearby. "The warlords are already in Mogadishu. The clan fighting will start again. All this is something that can happen in the near future."
Mogadishu has been in an almost perpetual state of clan warfare since the fall of the last central government, the military dictatorship of Mohamed Said Barre, in 1991.
For two weeks, Ethiopian and Somali government troops have been attacked with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades fired from cars.
If Mogadishu descends into another period of clan warfare, some regional analysts say, that is precisely what Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi Meles wanted all along. As evidence, they point to an Ethiopian government foreign policy report submitted to that country's Parliament two years ago.
According to an English translation, Ethiopian security officials wrote that Somalia was so divided that it "no longer posed a threat" to Ethiopia.
The two U.S. airstrikes in southern Somalia this month have been undertaken in close cooperation with Ethiopian forces, which have conducted their own ground and air assaults in the same area with shared intelligence and operational information. In addition to the three alleged al-Qaeda operatives, believed responsible for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, targets have included Somali Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and Aden Ayrow, who served as de facto defense minister of the Islamic government.
U.S. officials have said that none of the targeted individuals was hit in the initial strike Jan. 7, which killed at least 10 and perhaps as many as 20 people. Although a U.S. military team entered Somali territory to assess the strike site and recover bodies, no information has been released on their identities.
McCrummen reported from Nairobi. Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.