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|Americans in dark glasses cast an eye on Somalia|
|12/20/01 at 19:30:56|
|Americans in dark glasses cast an eye on Somalia |
Whether the land of warlords is a haven for Bin Laden is open to question
James Astill in Baidoa
Thursday December 20, 2001
[url=http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan/story/0,1284,621949,00.html]The Guardian [/url]
The twin-engined plane popped out of the clouds over Baidoa, central Somalia, at around 10am, although no plane was expected. A UN flight coordinator guided it on to the airstrip and watched nine casually dressed white men climb out.
"We are from the US embassy in Nairobi, and the UN are the last people we want to see," said one, sporting the same regulation shades as the rest. "Where are the authorities?" Ten minutes later three battered pick-up trucks loaded with youthful gunmen whisked them away.
The men were not from the Nairobi embassy, but they were American. The authority in Baidoa is the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA), one of the tribal militias still feuding in Somalia a decade after the state fell into civil war.
The pick-ups rumbled along Baidoa's cratered streets to the RRA's "operations centre", a scruffy grey house guarded by tetchy fighters.
Before September 11 the US was trying to forget these skinny gunmen who drove its peacekeepers from the Somali capital Mogadishu in 1993. Now it is paying clandestine visits to their remote headquarters as, elsewhere, it talks of widening the war on terror.
For several weeks the Pentagon has been making bullish statements about the presence of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in Somalia, which some take to signal imminent strikes.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, says it is a country which "harbours al-Qaida". His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, spoke last week of the "certain al-Qaida presence".
A senior German official, speaking after Mr Rumsfeld briefed Nato on Tuesday, said Somalia was likely to be the next target of US action against al-Qaida.
America is also concerned that, wild and substantially ungoverned, Somalia would offer Bin Laden a safe haven if, as now seems possible, he escapes from Afghanistan.
"It could be a place where terrorist cells could find some kind of comfortable environment," the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, said. US ships are patrolling Somalia's long coastline and spy planes fly over the desert.
After meeting the RRA's commanders, the US team inspected a former agricultural research compound outside Baidoa, in which only one breeze-block building, the size of a modest stable, remains.
Hundreds of war refugees live around it in cardboard-and-thorn huts. If, as Baidoa's resident militia claims, this was offered as a base for US military advisers, it was not a generous offer.
"The Americans got out their cars, walked around it once, then they left," the nightwatchman, Hussein Ahmed, said. "They didn't even play with the children."
The team continued 10 miles down the Mogadishu road to a Soviet-built military depot. Its bunkers have caved in, electric cables and drainage pipes have been grubbed up; a large tortoise was the only sign of life.
If the Americans were assessing the RRA's military strength, they should have looked at the boys with Kalashnikovs lounging in Baidoa's souk. According to Mohamed Adan, the local RRA commander, the Americans did not stay long at the depot before heading back to the airstrip and then Nairobi.
The mission has heightened the expectation of strikes because, the RRA says, the country is overrun with terrorists.
"Somalia is controlled by fundamentalists, all linked to the mother organisation, al-Qaida," said its leader Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail, who is acting chairman of an Ethiopian-backed alliance of warlords opposed to the government in Mogadishu.
"We estimate there are approximately 20,480 armed extremists in Somalia."
The warlords want US backing so that they can attack these "terrorists", who which they mean all the pro-government militias, including the national police.
If the Americans offer support, the attacks may be aimed at al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity), a Somali group listed as a terrorist group and allegedly linked to al-Qaida.
Al-Itihaad was one of the many groups fighting for power after the dictator Siad Barre fled in 1991. But its militia was crushed by Ethiopian troops in 1997. Both the government and its sponsor, the UN, say it is no longer a military force and has no known links to al-Qaida. Rather, they say, it provides Islamic schools, courts, and basic healthcare: services which are scarce in Somalia.
"There could be some suspect individuals somewhere, but to the best of our knowledge there are no camps of any terrorist groups in Somalia, and no links with al-Qaida," President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan said."We have invited America to come and investigate. It would be good if it was a bit happier to cooperate."
The warlords say that would be impossible, because Mr Hassan and his ministers are terrorists themselves. About 85% of the government belongs to al-Itihaad, according to Mr Ismail. But a the visit of a US diplomat to Mogadishu yesterday - the first US official there for seven years - suggests that Washington disagrees. It also suggests any anti-terrorism action in Somalia will, as in Yemen, be with the compliance of the government.
Mr Ismail is less exact on al-Itihaad. "They have annual meetings and quarterly meetings. They meet in Mogadishu... even in Afghanistan," he said.
In fact the warlords' claims are extensions of their personal ambitions. Mr Ismail says Merca, which his Rahanwein clan lays claim to, is the capital of terror. His defence secretary, General Mohammed Hersi Morgan, says that, contrary to UN reports, an al-Itihaad military camp on the island of Ras Kamboni is still active. But the site is close to his hometown, Kismaayo, which he is plotting to retake.
Meanwhile intelligence sources say the latest US reconnaissance confirms that there are no al-Qaida-backed camps, and only a handful of individuals linked to Bin Laden's network. The warlords could be bribed to help America round up these individuals, but air strikes or other major military action is unlikely, they say.
Ken Menkhaus, a state department adviser, believes some in the US government were alarmed by exaggerated Ethiopian intelligence. "The mission to Baidoa was probably a way to suss out local proxies if they're needed."
Somalia watchers doubt Bin Laden would find a safe haven in the country, where rumour-mongering is considered good manners. News of the US mission was given on Mogadishu radio while they were in Baidoa.
Whether or not the Baidoa visit presages anti-terrorist action in Somalia, its effects are already being felt. Although the civil war has settled into a stalemate the warlords pulled out of peace talks in Nairobi on Friday, apparently in the expectation of US support.
The Baidoa governor, Mohammed Ali Adan, said: "There is going to be fighting again soon."
|Somalia high on US list of terror targets|
|12/20/01 at 19:32:43|
|Somalia high on US list of terror targets |
Ian Black in Brussels and Matthew Engel in Washington
Thursday December 20, 2001
[url=http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan/story/0,1284,622056,00.html]The Guardian [/url]
Somalia could become the next target of US action, in an attempt to shut down boltholes for al-Qaida members fleeing Afghanistan. The information leaked out from a senior German official after a briefing by the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
The official said US action against Somalia was not a question of "if" but "how and when". He added: "Anyone who rules out Somalia would be a fool."
General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, tried to downplay the prospect of immediate military intervention, but confirmed that Somalia was a target.
"There are... countries that worry us because they actively support and harbour [terrorists]. It's one thing to have a cell in your country, it's another to actively support them," he said at Nato's headquarters in Brussels.
"And Somalia is one potential country - there are others as well - a potential country where you might have diplomatic, law enforcement action or potentially military action. All the instruments of national power, not just one."
The comment follows a series of broad hints from senior members of the Bush administration that Somalia may be brought into Washington's sights. The vice-president, Dick Cheney, said: "Clearly that's one we'll look at."
In an interview with the Washington Times, he said: "We don't know how al-Qaida is functioning and how it will work when you sort of chop its head. How will those cells around the world function and will they be able to function? My guess is that they probably will, so we've got to go wrap them up too."
Mr Rumsfeld insisted Washington needed no new authorisation from the UN security council to hit terrorist targets outside Afghanistan.
Somalia is notionally run by a fledgling transitional government led by Abdiqasim Salat Hassan, which yesterday protested that it had told Washington it was ready to help in the hunt for members of al-Qaida, the network connected to Osama bin Laden and blamed for the September 11 attacks against US cities.
The Somali transport minister, Abdi Guled Mohammed, who was at peace talks in Nairobi with factional leaders from his country, said: "We have said since September 11 that we want to help. If the Americans say there are terrorists in Somalia, they should tell us how they know this."
The US regional envoy, Glen Warren, flew into the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, yesterday to pile on the pressure. The Americans, Mr Warren said, did not recognise "any government or regional government or any other sort of administration in Somalia".
Earlier this month nine Americans were seen by aid workers talking to the leaders of two factions opposed to the transitional government, the Rahanwein Resistance Army, and the Ethiopian-backed faction of Mohammed Saeed Hirsi.
In a joint statement several African countries urged Washington to avoid military intervention and to cooperate with the transitional government.
The focus on Somalia follows a second day of clashes in Yemen, where Yemeni forces trained and equipped with US funds engaged armed tribesmen to capture suspected al-Qaida members. Tanks, helicopters and artillery pounded mountain villages and hillsides in what appeared to be the most serious military operation yet in an Arab country in search of suspects allegedly connected to al-Qaida.
Twelve were killed in Tuesday's fighting. Seven others died of their wounds yesterday.
In a separate incident US speedboats attacked an Iranian registered oil tanker in the Gulf, injuring two people. Iran's foreign ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador, whose country represents US interests in Iran, to deliver Tehran's "strong protest" and demand explanation, it said.
The Swiss envoy told an Iranian foreign ministry official that the American boats had mistaken the tanker for an Iraqi vessel smuggling oil.
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