U.S. Operations In Somalia Not Over

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the "Pukin' Dogs" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 143 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007. AP/U.S. Navy

Ethiopian and U.S. forces were in pursuit of three top al Qaeda suspects Thursday, with a senior U.S. official confirming that none of them were killed in a U.S. airstrike and were believed to still be in Somalia.

U.S. operations there were not over, the official said. He said they were focused solely on tracking down men involved in international terrorism and not Somali Islamic fundamentalists who had challenged Somalia's internationally recognized government for power and were accused of harboring al Qaeda suspects. The official in Kenya was authorized to speak only on condition of anonymity.

Michael E. Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, made similar comments to the BBC. He also told the BBD the United States would support moderate Islamic-oriented politicians participating in a Somali government of national unity, as long as they rejected violence.

"We think that all Somalis who renounce violence and extremism have a role to play in the future of the country," Ranneberger said.

The Somali president's chief of staff said on Wednesday that the al Qaeda cell leader for East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, had been killed in a U.S. airstrike Monday. But the U.S. official said he was confident that none of the three top terror suspects believed to be in Somalia were dead.

"The three high-value targets are still of intense interest to us," the official said. "What we're doing is still ongoing, we're still in pursuit, us and the Ethiopians."

The official also contradicted numerous statements by Somali government officials, saying the United States had carried out only one air strike on Monday and that only eight to 10 militants with ties to al Qaeda has been killed. He said subsequent reports of more air strikes and civilian casualties were rumors and disinformation spread by the Islamic extremists.

In Washington, officials said U.S. special operations forces were in Somalia. Pentagon officials dismissed the idea they are planning to send large numbers of ground troops.

U.S. and Somali officials said Wednesday a small American team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces on the ground. The officials provided little detail and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia on Dec. 24 to attack the Somali Islamic fundamentalist movement. Most of the Islamic militiamen have dispersed, but a few hardcore members have fled south toward the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. has repeatedly accused the group of harboring three top terror suspects wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania: Fazul, Abu Talha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.

The U.S. Navy has moved additional forces into waters off the Somali coast, where they have conducted security missions, monitoring maritime traffic and intercepting and interrogating crew on suspicious ships in international waters.

The official said Kenyan naval forces had set up a blockade along the sea border to make sure no suspected terrorists could infiltrate the country. The Kenyan army is also intercepting suspects trying to sneak across the land border, he added.

Earlier this week, police at the Kenyan coastal border town of Kiunga arrested the wives and several children of two of the embassy bombing suspects, according to an internal police report seen by The Associated Press Wednesday. The suspects' relatives had slipped across the border, according to the report.

At the very tip of Somalia, government and Ethiopian forces skirmished with Islamic militiamen on Thursday. Residents said they heard fighting in Ras Kamboni, where extremists with ties to al Qaeda were once believed to have operated a training camp. The remote, forested area has few residents and high frequency radio is the only reliable form of communication.

"We are hearing bombardment in Ras Kamboni. It started around 6 a.m. and the strike is now continuing," one resident said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. "We can't see planes, but we can hear heavy explosions."

Further north, Ethiopian helicopters and troops attacked around Dobley, a Somali town seven kilometers (four miles) from the Kenyan border, the Ethiopian Information Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

A witnesses said he saw 60 Ethiopian tanks and other military vehicles headed toward El Ade, several hundred kilometers (miles) further east. Fighters loyal to the Islamic militia were seen retreating to the area last week local resident Hassan Hashi told The Associated Press.

A Somali human rights group said Thursday that thousands of Somalis fleeing the fighting were now stranded on the Kenyan border.

CBS News Investigative Reporter Phil Hirschkorn reports Mohammed, also known as Haroun Fazil, had a key role in the twin truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, which killed 224 people and injured thousands. He's also trained Islamic militants in Somalia and allegedly organized more recent attacks on Israeli tourists in Kenya. Read Hirschkorn's report.

"He's an extraordinarily dangerous individual," Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent who spent years hunting al Qaeda, told CBS News. "He's the real deal."

Mohammed is seen in footage obtained by CBS News that shows him in the aftermath of a 1996 ferry accident in central Africa's Lake Victoria.
  • Lloyd Vries