WASHINGTON,(Reuters) – The U.S. military used bases inside Ethiopia last month to capture or kill top al Qaeda leaders in the Horn of Africa, The New York Times reported on its Web site on Thursday, citing U.S. officials.
The Times said the campaign included the use of an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to conduct air strikes against Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia.
Officials were quoted as saying the clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant information-sharing on the militants’ positions and information from U.S. spy satellites with the Ethiopian military, the newspaper reported.
Members of a secret U.S. special operations unit, Task Force 88, were deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya and ventured into Somalia, the officials added. But Ethiopia denied the report.
“Ethiopia has not provided any air base for the Americans to strike Somalia,” said Bereket Simon, close adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“The New York Times has fabricated this story and if there is any Pentagon official whom they are quoting, then that official does not have the slightest knowledge of the region or Ethiopia,” Simon, a minister without portfolio, told Reuters.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to discuss details of the operation with the Times, but the paper said some officials agreed to provide specifics because they considered it relatively successful. They said the campaign disrupted terrorist networks in Somalia and led to the death or capture of several Islamic militants.
The mission was in support of Ethiopian troops’ recent drive to enter Somalia to help the government oust the militant Islamist movement.
According to the Times, Washington resisted an official endorsement of the Ethiopian invasion, but U.S. officials from several agencies said the Bush administration decided last year an incursion was the best way to remove the Islamists from power.
The United States has been seeking two al Qaeda leaders — Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam — for their suspected roles in the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The sharing of battlefield intelligence on the Islamists’ positions was a result of an Ethiopian request to Gen. John Abizaid, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command. John Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, also authorized spy satellites to be diverted to provide information to Ethiopia, officials told the Times.
The secret operation in the Horn of Africa is an example of a more aggressive approach the Pentagon has taken to send Special Operations troops to hunt high-level terrorism suspects. President George W. Bush gave the Pentagon powers after the Sept. 11 attacks to carry out such missions, the report said.
The newspaper said that Ethiopian troops have received U.S. training for counterterrorism operations for several years in camps near the Somalia border.