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U.S. aims to stop Islamic extremists fleeing Somalia
By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON Thu 4 Jan 2007 (Reuters) - U.S. forces are deployed near Somalia to block the escape of members of that country's ousted Islamist government with ties to al Qaeda and other extremists, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.
"We would be concerned that no leaders who were members of the Islamic Courts which have ties to terrorist organisations including al Qaeda are allowed to flee and leave Somalia," spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"We of course have a presence off the coast of Somalia and Horn of Africa to make sure there are no escape routes by sea where these individuals could flee," McCormack said. He declined to provide details about the U.S. forces.
The Islamists, who deserted their last stronghold on Monday after two weeks of war against Somali government troops backed by Ethiopia, have pledged to fight on after melting into the hills between the Indian Ocean port of Kismayu and Kenya.
McCormack did not name specific extremists, but U.S. officials said before the war the top layer of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) was controlled by a cell of al Qaeda operatives. The head of the council, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is on U.N. and U.S. extremist lists.
During the six-month rule of the Islamists, U.S. officials tried with no success to persuade the SICC to give up three suspects wanted for the 1998 bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania who Washington believed were in Somalia.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said on Tuesday that pro-Islamic fighters from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Arab countries were taken prisoner during the fighting.
The United States set up the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in 2002 in Djibouti, where a former French Foreign Legion base serves as a major hub for U.S. counter-terrorism training and operations as well as humanitarian efforts.
Members of that 1,800-member task force have also trained with troops in Ethiopia, and U.S. ships patrol the nearby Gulf of Aden, according to Pentagon documents.
Asked about the widely shared assumption that Ethiopia's two-week campaign to oust Somalia's Islamists enjoyed U.S. blessing, McCormack said Washington had preferred a negotiated settlement.
"But it became apparent over time, and certainly very apparent in the recent weeks, that that wasn't going to happen and that the Islamic courts were intent upon trying to seize control over all of Somalia through use of arms," he said.
"There were real concerns about the composition of the leadership of those Islamic courts," McCormack added.
The U.S. State Department would immediately make available food aid for Somalia and join an international donors' conference to assess the country's needs, he said later in a statement.
Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was to co-host a meeting on Friday in Kenya aimed at finding ways to help Mogadishu, including backing an African peacekeeping force for Somalia, the U.S. State Department said.
Frazer was in the Ethiopian capital for meetings with the leaders of Ethiopia and Uganda. Uganda is the only country so far to offer troops for the peacekeeping force, which was endorsed before the war by the United Nations.