By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 3, 2007
ARUSHA, Tanzania, June 2 -- A U.S. Navy destroyer launched an attack on foreign fighters in a remote corner of northeastern Somalia late Friday, according to a senior U.S. official, though details of the operation remained sketchy.
The bombardment was concentrated in and around the port town of Bargaal, the official said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified.
News media in the Puntland region reported that the strikes destroyed farms, flattened hilltops and killed or injured an unknown number of villagers, but the accounts could not be independently confirmed.
It was too soon to say whether the strikes had hit their intended targets, the U.S. official said.
The missiles came hours after heavy fighting in the area between regional government forces and foreign and Somali fighters who had arrived by speedboat, according to the U.S. official and Somali officials, who spoke to the Associated Press.
The fighters are part of an insurgency that appears to have spread in recent weeks beyond the battered capital of Mogadishu and increasingly involves roadside and suicide bomb attacks, unusual tactics even in a country as routinely violent as Somalia.
Officials in the Puntland region told AP that as many as 35 heavily armed fighters arrived in two fishing boats from the country's southern coast, an area controlled by militias loyal to a popular Islamic movement that had gained control of much of the country last June but was ousted in December by Ethiopian troops, with U.S. logistical support.
Friday's attack was the latest in a U.S. military operation that began late last year in Somalia, a moderate Muslim country, and that U.S. officials say is aimed at fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
After Ethiopian troops routed the Islamic movement in December, the United States conducted two airstrikes in southern Somalia that officials said targeted three suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But in the five months since then, none of the suspects has been confirmed killed.
Dozens of FBI and CIA personnel have traveled to Ethiopia to question Somalis and foreigners, including at least two U.S. citizens, rounded up by Ethiopian troops in Somalia and held in secret prisons that human rights groups have likened to a mini-Guantanamo.
According to the U.S. official, Friday's bombardment probably was another attempt to strike one of the three embassy bombing suspects, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is considered the mastermind of the attacks.
The Puntland region is a stronghold of Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf, who is popular in some areas of Somalia but is considered by many residents to be a puppet of Ethiopia.
To the south, in Mogadishu, leaders of the city's dominant Hawiye clan accuse Yusuf of shutting them out of his transitional government. The clan generally supported the Islamic movement, more for pragmatic than ideological reasons, and since Yusuf came to power, its militias have formed a large part of the insurgency.
Increasingly, however, it is unclear who is controlling the insurgents as they move farther from the capital -- Hawiye leaders, other clans, the ousted Islamic leaders or possibly outsiders.
Meanwhile, leaders of the ousted Islamic movement are forming a political party composed of members of the Somali parliament and other officials who have defected from Yusuf's government.
The leaders have held one meeting in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and another one is planned this month.