Ethiopian and U.S. forces were in pursuit of three top al-Qaida 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.
The official in Kenya, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media, said U.S. special operations forces were focused solely on tracking down the suspected terrorists and not members of the Somali Islamic movement that had challenged the country’s government for power.
A day earlier, a Somali official said a U.S. intelligence report had referred to the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the three senior al-Qaida members blamed for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But the U.S. official said he was confident none of the three top al-Qaida suspects believed to be in Somalia was killed in the airstrike Monday.
“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 in recent days, saying the U.S. had carried out just one airstrike and only eight to 10 militants with ties to al-Qaida were killed. He said subsequent reports of more airstrikes and civilian casualties were rumors and disinformation spread by the Islamic extremists.
Michael E. Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, also told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday that Fazul had not been killed.
U.S. and Somali officials said Wednesday that U.S. special forces were in Somalia hunting al-Qaida fighters and providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces. The U.S. forces entered the country last month when Ethiopia launched its attack against the Islamic movement, one of the officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Most of the Islamic militiamen have since dispersed, but a few hardcore members have fled to Somalia’s southernmost point between 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 embassy bombings: 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 monitored maritime traffic and interrogated crews on suspicious ships in international waters.
The U.S. official in Kenya 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, which is closed, he added.
Earlier this week, police at the Kenyan coastal border town of Kiunga arrested the wives and children of two of the embassy bombing suspects after they managed to slip across the frontier, according to an internal police report seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Somali and Ethiopian forces skirmished with Islamic militiamen in the far south of Somalia on Thursday as part of mop-up operations against the fighters.
One resident in the area, Mosa Aden Hersi, said there were numerous militant and civilian casualties in the fighting. “We saw the dead bodies of 17 men in military uniform under a small hill, but we do not know their identity,” he said by two-way radio.
The remote, forested area has few residents and high-frequency radio is the only reliable form of communications.
The Ethiopian Information Ministry said its military had also launched helicopter and troop attacks around the town of Dhobley, about four miles from the Kenyan border.
A Somali human rights group said Thursday that thousands of Somalis fleeing the fighting were now stranded on the Kenyan border, which has been closed.
“Thousands are in a bad condition and they do not have food and water. They are stranded at the border after Kenya closed it and they cannot go back to their houses for two reasons: the ongoing airstrikes and lack of transportation,” said Ali Bashi, chairman of the Fanole group.
The Red Cross said more than 850 wounded people, both civilians and soldiers, have been treated at medical facilities since fighting began last month.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. The interim government was established with the help of the United Nations in 2004.