Somali force moves to secure area after US attack

MOGADISHU (AFP) — Forces from the Somali semi-autonomous state of Puntland on Sunday moved to secure mountainous and remote areas where a US warship shelled suspected Al Qaeda targets, residents said.

Hundreds of heavily armed fighters were patrolling the Bargal area, about 1,250 kilometres northeast of the Somali capital Mogadishu, the residents said.

“Puntland has sent troops to this area and they are planning to seal off the area,” resident Ahmed Abdirahman told AFP by satellite phone.

“So far, there have been no clashes here, but the authorities are planning to secure the whole area,” he added. Another resident, who requested anonymity, confirmed the deployment, which followed clashes between Puntland forces and Islamists last week.

A US navy destroyer on Friday fired on several targets in the mountainous terrains outside Bargal, where Al Qaeda operatives as well as Somali Islamists and foreign fighters are believed to have bases.

According to a CNN report, the destroyer was targeting a suspected Al Qaeda operative believed to have been involved in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

Somali officials said there were casualties from Friday’s attack and from fighting in the remote Somali region, but did not give the exact figure.

Regional leaders said they had not asked for US military help to track down Islamist fighters and foreigners of Arab origin who arrived in the area on Wednesday.

“The Americans are aware of the movement of terrorists all over the world and they have a right to pursue them. We did not ask them to come and pursue the terrorists,” said Barri region governor, Mussa Jelle Yusuf.

Puntland president, Adde Mussa, has accused Al Qaeda of planning attacks in northern Somalia, which has remained untouched by recent heavy fighting between Somali government forces and Islamist and clan insurgents.

Somalia’s Puntland and neighbouring Somaliland regions have declared a form of autonomy and have enjoyed relative stability compared to Somalia proper, which has been wracked by lawlessness since the 1991 ouster of Mohammad Siad Barre.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates refused to comment on the shelling, saying only it was “possibly an ongoing operation”. “I think that’s possibly an ongoing operation and I’m not going to be able to talk about that,” Gates told reporters in Singapore.

In January, a US gunship targeted positions in southern Somalia after Ethiopia-backed Somali government forces ousted a powerful Islamist movement from the country’s southern and central regions.

Local elders said more than 100 civilians were killed in the January attacks, which targeted suspected Al Qaeda operatives blamed both for the 1998 US embassy bombings and the 2002 suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan Indian Ocean city of Mombasa that killed 15 people.

Among the so-called “high value” Al Qaeda operatives believed to be in Somalia are Fazul Abdullah Mohammad from the Comoros, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Sudanese national Abu Taha Al Sudani, an arms expert close to Osama Ben Laden.

Others are Sheikh Dahir Aweys, the hardline cleric heading Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, and Adan Hashi Ayro, the commander of the group’s Shabaab armed wing. 

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