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Ethiopian leader: U.S. airstrike targeted 20 high-level militants
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Ethiopia's prime minister said Wednesday the U.S. military targeted 20 high-level members of an Islamic movement linked to al-Qaida in an airstrike this week in southern Somalia, attacking quickly before the Islamists could escape.
The chief of staff for the Somali president claimed that a senior al-Qaida figure was killed in Monday's airstrike, although U.S. officials did not confirm it.
The air assault has been criticized internationally, with the African Union, European Union and United Nations among those expressing concern. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair told lawmakers it was right to stand up to extremists who were using violence to "get their way" in Somalia.
Somali lawmaker Abdulrashid Hidig said the United States launched a new airstrike Wednesday around Ras Kamboni, a rugged coastal area a few miles from the Kenyan border where Monday's attack took place. He cited the Somali military as the source of the information.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters in his country's capital, Addis Ababa, that eight suspected terrorists were killed in Monday's airstrike, five were wounded and taken into custody by Ethiopian forces, and seven escaped.
Meles said most of the victims were Somali, but the identities would not be confirmed until DNA testing is completed.
He said Ethiopia and the United States have been cooperating on intelligence, and that most of the information has come from the Americans. He also said the Ethiopians did not provide any intelligence that led to Monday's airstrike.
"I do not know how the Americans got the information, but they appeared to have some credible information," he said. "Apparently they felt if they did not strike quickly, the target would be missed."
However, a U.S. military official based in the region said the Ethiopian military had provided the intelligence that led to the strike. "We acted on time-sensitive intelligence and made the strike in cooperation with the Ethiopians," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding U.S. special operations missions.
In Washington, an intelligence official said the U.S. killed five to 10 people Monday in the attack on an al-Qaida target in southern Somalia. A Somali lawmaker said 31 civilians died Tuesday when helicopter gunships attacked suspected al-Qaida fighters in the south.
The U.S. military official said Tuesday's strike was probably carried out by Ethiopia since the aircraft were identified as Russian-made Hind helicopter gunships like those used by the Ethiopian military.
Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, said at least three U.S. airstrikes have been launched since Monday and that more were likely.
The al-Qaida suspect believed to have been killed Monday was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who allegedly planned the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Hassan said. He cited a U.S. intelligence report that was given to Somali authorities.
If confirmed, it would mean the end of an eight-year hunt for one of the FBI's most-wanted terrorists. Fazul was believed to have been harbored by the Somali Islamic movement that had challenged the country's Ethiopian-backed government for power.
In Washington, U.S. government officials said they had no reason to believe that Fazul had been killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information's sensitivity.
Fazul, 32, joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan and trained with Osama bin Laden, according to FBI documents. The U.S. put a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the embassy bombings, which killed 225 people.
This week's air attacks were the first U.S. offensive in Somalia since 18 American soldiers were killed here in 1993. The military's aim is to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing advancing Ethiopian-backed Somali troops.
Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aided said Wednesday that U.S. special forces were needed on the ground to help Somali and Ethiopian troops capture Muslim extremists. "They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people," said Aided, a former U.S. Marine.
A senior Somali government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said a small U.S. operations team already was on the ground, providing military advice to Ethiopian and government forces.
In Washington, two senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday they had heard of no plans to put any sizable contingent of American ground troops in Somalia. Small teams of liaison officers -- such as special forces advisers or trainers -- were another matter, they said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
U.S. troops based in Djibouti have been training Ethiopian soldiers for years, mostly in small-unit tactics and border security. Ethiopia has the largest military and is America's closest ally in the region.
Meles said the success of the Ethiopian military intervention may have paved the way for the American airstrikes.
"No one expected the terrorists would be running around in groups of five or six without any protection," Meles said.
In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, some said the U.S. air attacks would increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country, where people are already upset by the presence of troops from Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population.