Al-Qaida chief in Somalia may be dead | VailDaily.com

Al-Qaida chief in Somalia may be dead

Associated Press
Vail CO, Colorado

AP photo

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A senior al-Qaida suspect wanted for bombing American embassies in East Africa was killed in a U.S. airstrike, a Somali official said Wednesday, a report that if confirmed would mean the end of an eight-year hunt for a top target of Washington’s war on terrorism.

In Washington, U.S. government officials said they had no reason to believe that the suspect, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, had been killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information’s sensitivity.

The report came as U.S forces apparently launched a third day of airstrikes in southern Somalia. At least four separate strikes were reported around Ras Kamboni, on the Somali coast near the Kenyan border. Witnesses said an AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al-Qaida training camp.

A senior Somali government official also said a small U.S. team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and government forces on the ground. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

In Washington, a U.S. official said it would be virtually unheard of for the United States to be involved in an operation of this size without “eyes on the ground.”

Two senior Pentagon officials said they had heard of no plans to put any sizable contingent of Americans in Somalia. However, small teams of liaison officers – such as special forces or trainers – are another matter, the officials said.

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All three officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s deputy prime minister said Wednesday that American troops were needed on the ground to root extremists from his troubled country, and he expected the troops soon.

Fazul, the al-Qaida suspect believed killed in the airstrike Monday, was wanted for allegedly planned the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“I have received a report from the American side chronicling the targets and list of damage,” Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president’s chief of staff, told The Associated Press. “One of the items they were claiming was that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is dead.”

In Washington, an intelligence official said the U.S. killed five to 10 people in an attack on an al-Qaida target in southern Somalia but did not say who was killed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation’s sensitivity, said perhaps four or five others were wounded.

Fazul, 32, joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan and trained there with Osama bin Laden, according to the transcript of an FBI interrogation of a known associate. He had a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed 225 people.

He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of an Israeli beach resort in Kenya and the near-simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.

The airstrikes and deployment were part of the first U.S. offensive in Somalia since 18 American soldiers were killed there in 1993.

The offensive is aimed at capturing al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia since the Islamic militia that sheltered them began losing ground to Somali government soldiers backed by Ethiopian troops last month. It has drawn international criticism, although Britain’s leader Tony Blair has pledged support.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. military assault had been based on credible intelligence. He would not confirm any details of the airstrikes, conducted by at least one AC-130 gunship. He would also not say if any specific members of al-Qaida had been killed, or address if the operations were continuing.

In three days of attacks near Afmadow, close to the Kenyan border, 64 civilians had been killed and 100 injured, said elder Haji Farah Qorshel. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

Hassan said local intelligence reports indicated that Abdirahman Janaqow, a deputy leader of the Somali Islamic militants, had also been killed.

Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aideed said U.S. special forces were needed on the ground as Somali and Ethiopian forces have been unable to capture the last remaining hideouts of suspected extremists.

“The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al-Qaida terrorists is for U.S. special forces to go in on the ground,” said Aideed, a former U.S. Marine. “They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people.”

“As far as we are aware they are not on the ground yet, but it is only a matter of time,” Aideed said.

Leaders of Somalia’s Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and bin Laden’s deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on Ethiopian troops.

In the capital of Mogadishu, some said the attacks would increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country, where people are already upset by the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population.

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.