A day earlier, a Somali official had said a U.S. intelligence report had referred to the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the three senior al Qaeda members believed responsible for bombing U.S. embassies in East Africa. But U.S. and Ethiopian troops in southern Somalia were still pursuing the three, the U.S. official said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Earlier this week, police at the Kenyan coastal border town of Kiunga arrested the wives and several children of two of the embassy bombing suspects, according to an internal police report seen by The Associated Press Wednesday. The suspects' relatives had slipped across the border, according to the report.
Residents on Thursday reported new fighting between Islamic militiamen and Somali and Ethiopian forces.
The fighting early Thursday in southern Somalia set off a brush fire, residents said by two-way radio. There were reports of as many as 35 deaths.
The fighting comes after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his forces were carrying out mop-up operations against Islamic militants in the extreme southern corner of Somalia and that he expected to withdraw his troops within a few weeks.
While officials in Washington said U.S. special operations forces had entered Somalia with Ethiopian forces last month, they said there was no plan for large numbers of U.S. troops to enter the country.
U.S. and Somali officials said Wednesday a small American team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces on the ground. The officials provided little detail and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Somali officials have said the U.S. had a right to strike, and one even called on America to send in ground troops to help root out al Qaeda extremists and the Islamic militia believed to be sheltering them.
The U.S. Navy has moved additional forces into waters off the Somali coast, where they have conducted security missions, monitoring maritime traffic and intercepting and interrogating crew on suspicious ships.
There were five ships Wednesday: the guided missile destroyer USS Ramage, the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, the guided missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio, and the amphibious landing ship USS Ashland. Officials said they could use the Ashland as a brig for any captured suspects.
Ethiopia intervened to protect Somalia's internationally backed government on December 24 after forces loyal to a fundamentalist group called the Council of Islamic Courts advanced on the only town the government controlled.
Within 10 days the Ethiopians, joined by Somali troops, had pushed the Islamic fighters into a corner between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean. The remote, forested area has few residents and high frequency radio is the only reliable form of communications.
"We are hearing bombardment in Ras Kamboni. It started around 6 a.m. and the strike is now continuing," one resident said Thursday, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. "We can't see planes, but we can hear heavy explosions."
Mosa Aden Hersi, who lives 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Ras Kamboni, said earlier fighting in the area had triggered a brush fire. At least 35 civilians were killed along with fighters during the battle.
"We saw the dead bodies of 17 men in military uniform under a small hill, but we do not know their identity," he said.
"The fighting is near and around Ras Kamboni. This is the last hideout of the terrorists. It is small unit, mopping up operations that have not yet been completed," Meles said in Ethiopia on Wednesday.
A Somali human rights group said Thursday that thousands of Somalis fleeing the fighting were now stranded on the Kenyan border.
"Thousands are in a bad condition and they do not have food and water. They are stranded at the border after Kenya closed it, and they cannot go back to their houses for two reasons: the ongoing air strikes and lack of transportation," said Ali Bashi, chairman of the Fanole human rights group.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. The interim government was established in 2004.
Story courtesy of the Associated Press.