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Somali, Ethiopia forces skirmish with Islamists

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Jan 11, 2007 (MOGADISHU) — Somali and Ethiopian forces skirmished with Islamic militiamen in southern Somalia Thursday, as U.S. troops on the ground hunted for al-Qaida suspects.

A senior U.S. official in the region said Thursday that U.S. and Ethiopian troops in southern Somalia were still pursuing three senior al-Qaida members believed responsible for bombing U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

A day earlier, a Somali official, citing a U.S. intelligence report, had claimed one of the three was killed by a U.S. airstrike. But the U.S. official in Kenya, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said none of the three was killed in Monday’s strike. Somalis with close ties to al-Qaida were killed, the U.S. official said.

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.

Ethiopian forces entered Somalia late last month when Ethiopians launched their attack against a Somali Islamic movement that had challenged the internationally recognized government for power here and was said to be sheltering al-Qaida figures.

Ethiopian helicopter and troop attacks were taking place around Dobley, a southern Somali town seven kilometers (four miles) from the Kenyan border, the Ethiopian Information Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

About 200 kilometers (120 miles) east, residents said they heard fighting in Ras Kamboni, where extremists with ties to al-Qaida 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."

Mosa Aden Hersi, who lives 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Ras Kamboni, said earlier fighting in the area had triggered a brush fire.

"We saw the dead bodies of 17 men in military uniform under a small hill, but we do not know their identity," he said.

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 AP.

In Washington, officials said U.S. special operations forces were in Somalia hunting suspected al-Qaida fighters the Islamic movement was accused of harboring. 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.

The U.S. forces entered Somalia with Ethiopian forces late last month, one of the officials said.

Somali officials have said the U.S. had a right to strike, and one has even called on America to send in ground troops to help root out extremists.

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.

There were five ships Wednesday: the USS Ramage guided missile destroyer, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio guided missile cruisers, and the USS Ashland amphibious landing ship. Officials said they could use the Ashland as a brig for any captured suspects.

Ethiopia intervened after forces loyal to a fundamentalist group called the Council of Islamic Courts advanced on the only town the government controlled. Within 10 days the Ethiopians, joined by Somali troops, had pushed the Islamic fighters into a corner between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.

"The fighting is near and around Ras Kamboni. This is the last hideout of the terrorists. It is small unit, mopping up operations that have not yet been completed," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters in Ethiopia on Wednesday.

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

"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 air strikes and lack of transportation," said Ali Bashi, chairman of the Fanole human rights group.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 850 wounded people, both civilians and soldiers, have been treated at medical facilities since fighting started just over two weeks ago. In a statement it said it was deeply concerned about the plight of civilians and those captured by Ethiopian and government forces.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, U.N. Security Council on Wednesday backed the speedy deployment of African troops to Somalia and strongly supported a dialogue among all political players and humanitarian aid for the country.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current council president, told reporters after a closed-door meeting that members regard Somalia as "a high priority matter" and are concerned about instability, security, and the humanitarian situation.

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 in 2004.

(AP)

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