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Governments hunt for militants in Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya—The United States, Ethiopia, the transitional Somali government and Kenya coordinated land, sea and air operations Tuesday against al-Qaida operatives and remnants of Somalia's defeated Islamist militias in a southern corner of the war-ravaged African nation, U.S. and Somali officials said.

U.S. participation in the effort marked a significant step-up in the Bush administration's anti-terrorist operations in the strategic Horn of Africa, where a 1,800-strong U.S. task force has been involved largely in aid and reconstruction work for the past five years.

U.S. officials said they did not know if any al-Qaida operatives were killed in a U.S. airstrike on Sunday—the first known American offensive action in Somalia in more than a decade—or in other encounters over the past few days.

"We have nothing that gives us truth. There's lots of speculation," said a U.S. official in Washington who requested anonymity because the operations were ongoing. "We know who we thought we were targeting and ... we don't know who we hit."

But there were unconfirmed reports that Ethiopian forces, operating with American intelligence support, may have killed a senior al-Qaida member on Monday.

The al-Qaida members being targeted included a key operative in East Africa and two men wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people.

Also being targeted were senior leaders of the Council of Islamic Courts, an Islamist movement that controlled much of Somalia until it was routed this month by Ethiopian forces that intervened on behalf of the Transitional Federal Government, a U.N.-recognized alliance of clan strongmen.

The transitional government endorsed the U.S. operations against the Islamists.

"The U.S. has the right to defend itself and bomb terrorists they say are responsible for the bombing of their embassies," President Abdullahi Yusuf said in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

The Pentagon confirmed on Tuesday that an AC-130, a cargo aircraft outfitted with advanced night-vision technology and a 105 mm canon and other powerful guns, fired at unidentified senior al-Qaida figures in southern Somalia on Sunday.

Intelligence "led us to believe we had principal al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "We're going to remain committed to reducing terrorist capabilities where and when we find them."

Whitman declined to identify the targets or say whether they were killed or wounded.

The attack took place in the remote Afmadow district, a forested region near the border with Kenya, which has deployed security forces to seal the frontier.

Residents contacted by telephone reported hearing two low-flying helicopters fire rockets into dense woods in the same area late Monday afternoon. The Islamists sustained heavy casualties, they said.

U.S. officials in Washington said they knew of no U.S. combat operations after Sunday's strike, but added that Ethiopian helicopters and ground forces were operating in the area.

Two U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because the matter was classified, said they had credible but unconfirmed reports that Ethiopian troops may have killed one of the wanted senior al-Qaida operatives in a firefight on Monday.

They identified him as Abu Talha al-Sudani, reputedly the head of al-Qaida's network in Somalia.

U.S. combat and reconnaissance aircraft were flying surveillance missions on Tuesday from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a carrier which arrived in the region over the weekend, the Navy said.

Two U.S. guided missile cruisers and an amphibious landing ship were also cruising off the Somali coast, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.

Navy crews were boarding commercial vessels to search for suspected terrorists trying to flee Somalia by sea, Brown said.

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(Landay reported from Washington and Bengali from Nairobi. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Mahad Elmi contributed from Mogadishu.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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