MOGADISHU (Reuters) – A U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship has launched a second air strike against suspected al Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified U.S. officials.
No confirmation of Monday’s reported attack was immediately available in the region and a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment. The newspaper said there was no information on the results or the specific targets of the strike.
An AC-130 gunship two weeks ago attacked what Washington said were al Qaeda agents fleeing with Islamist forces defeated by Somali government and Ethiopian troops late last month. It was the first overt U.S. action in Somalia since the end of a disastrous peacekeeping mission in 1994.
Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said he was not aware of a second U.S. attack.
Washington believes Somali Islamists harbored al Qaeda members accused of bombing two U.S. embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel in east Africa.
Any prolonged U.S. intervention in Somalia would be sure to inflame political passions there, joining the chorus of Muslims who see the “war on terror” as a crusade against Islam.
A freelance Somali journalist said on Sunday he had seen U.S. troops on the ground in south Somalia working with Ethiopian forces hunting fugitive Islamists. Ethiopia vehemently denied the report.
Rumors have swirled for days that U.S. personnel were inside Somalia since the January 8 strike but there has been no official confirmation of a U.S. ground presence.
Mortars were fired at Mogadishu airport on Wednesday, killing one person and injuring another after a U.N. delegation arrived in the Somali capital, a government source said.
“A U.N. delegation just arrived and as soon as they left the plane, two mortar shells hit the airport,” the source said.
“One person was killed while another was injured,” the source said, adding the victims were Somalis. The U.N. Development Programme delegation was taken to an agency compound.
A spate of attacks, mainly against Ethiopian troops backing Somalia’s interim government, have rocked the capital since they helped oust Islamists from Mogadishu and much of the south they had controlled for six months in a lightning December offensive.
The Islamists and some foreign supporters have vowed to wage guerrilla war against Ethiopian troops in the country, and many Somalis suspect their militants have been behind the attacks.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Wednesday some 200 soldiers had withdrawn from the chaotic nation.
“We have organised that the last phase of withdrawal will coincide with deployment of AU forces,” Meles told a news conference in Addis Ababa. “There will be no vacuum.”
The African Union (AU) has approved a nearly 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for Somalia, but experts doubt its capacity to muster it, let alone tame a nation in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The Islamists have been pushed into the remote southern tip near Kenya’s border and Nairobi has in custody top Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
A Kenyan government official said on Wednesday Ahmed would not be deported to Somalia because he would be killed and that he has asked for refuge in Yemen.
Yemen’s foreign minister was quoted as saying this month that some Islamist leaders had arrived there.
“We won’t send him back. He will be killed,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
“(Prime Minister Ali Mohamed) Gedi is in town and we are trying to persuade him to talk to Sheikh Sharif, but he won’t. He (Ahmed) wants to go to Yemen.”
Dinari declined to comment on the fate of Islamists returned to Somalia.
Considered a moderate before the war, Ahmed is among those the United States sees as a potential force in reconciliation.
The Kenyan official said Ahmed was under the watch of Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service at a plush hotel in Nairobi’s outskirts.
Many diplomats suspect a Kenyan and U.S. hand in bringing Ahmed in.
At least one Western diplomat dismissed as false reports that he turned himself in at the Kenyan border on Sunday: “He’s been in the shade in Nairobi for at least a week and they have just been figuring out how to handle it.”
A European diplomat said Ahmed had been in the country since at least January 16.
The U.S. embassy in Kenya said Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger planned to meet Ahmed later this week.