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Airstrikes continue in Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya—For the fourth straight day, residents of southern Somalia reported airstrikes Wednesday on the suspected jungle hideouts of the Islamist movement that ruled that area of the country until recently. The Pentagon said Ethiopia was continuing ground and air operations in the region with limited American involvement.

But time appeared to be running out for the offensive amid growing international criticism over civilian casualties and concerns that the operation is hurting U.S. efforts to build a broad-based Somalian transitional government.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that Sunday's assault by an American AC-130 combat aircraft had killed eight Islamic militants and had led to the captures of five. The target was al-Qaida suspects who'd obtained sanctuary in Somalia before Ethiopian forces ousted the Islamists from power late last month, U.S. officials said.

Meles said Ethiopian troops had recovered the remains of those killed and were trying to confirm their identities. "I believe they (American forces) did not miss the target," he said.

U.S. officials denied conducting further strikes on al-Qaida operatives in southern Somalia. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Ethiopian forces were continuing operations with "pretty limited" American involvement.

As many as 15,000 Ethiopian ground troops are thought to be in Somalia, backed by U.S. intelligence support and operating with the blessing of the country's weak transitional government. American military officials deny having personnel in Somalia.

An amphibious U.S. Navy landing ship is off the Somalian coast, however, and senior intelligence officials in Nairobi said it was likely that American special operations forces had gone ashore into the thick jungle to investigate attack sites.

"Unless they (the U.S.) have outstanding intelligence information, it's hard to think these people are cornered," said an intelligence official in Nairobi, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.

Criticism of the American-backed offensive mounted Wednesday. More than 70 civilians have been killed and 159 wounded since Sunday along with hundreds of cattle and livestock, residents said.

The Arab League issued a statement demanding that Washington refrain from further air attacks, which it said had killed "many innocent victims."

Humanitarian groups said that up to 7,000 Somalis were seeking asylum in Kenya. Kenyan authorities have sealed the border to stop fleeing Islamists, however.

The military campaign could jeopardize efforts by Somalia's U.S.-backed transitional government to establish order in Mogadishu after the ouster of the Islamists.

"Politically, their time is running out to do further airstrikes," said a senior Western diplomat in Nairobi, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the subject publicly. The United States "is pursuing reconciliation and inclusiveness, and they can hardly do that as they're bombing and there are civilian casualties."

Signs were growing that the campaign also was stirring anger in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, where warlords whom the Islamists had ousted have begun to reappear. Wednesday morning, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a convoy of Ethiopian troops but missed, hitting a house and wounding two residents.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Mahad Elmi contributed to this report from Mogadishu.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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