Somalia says US forces snatch militants hit in drone strike
NAIROBI, Kenya - US military forces landed in Somalia to retrieve the bodies of dead or wounded militants after a US drone strike targeted a group of insurgents, Somalia’s defense minister said yesterday.
The operation is at least the second time US troops have landed in Somalia after a targeted strike, though no forces have been stationed there since shortly after the “Black Hawk Down’’ battle that left 18 Americans dead in 1993.
Defense Minister Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi called on the United States to carry out more airstrikes against the Al Qaeda-linked militants, though he admitted that it appeared that Somali officials were not informed before the June 23 operation near the southern coastal town of Kismayo.
“But we are not complaining about that. Absolutely not. We welcome it,’’ Faqi said. “We understand the US’s need to quickly act on its intelligence on the ground,’’ he said. “We urge the US to continue its strikes against Al Shabab because if it keeps those strikes up, it will be easier for us to defeat Al Shabab.’’
US officials have increased their warnings that the threat from Somalia’s Al Shabab militant group is growing and that militants are developing stronger ties with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
New Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told lawmakers last month that as the core Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan undergoes leadership changes, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the United States needs to make sure that the group does not relocate to Somalia.
The only American military base in Africa is in the tiny nation of Djibouti, which is on Somalia’s northern border. US troops can also operate from Navy ships moving through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
In 2009, a US raid killed Al Qaeda fugitive Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, then commandos from helicopters rappelled to the ground and collected two bodies.
Faqi said the June 23 attack was carried out by a US drone, and US forces picked up militants who were either killed or injured. Residents in Kismayo reported hearing helicopters hovering overhead the night of the operation.
Faqi said the Somalia government would release the militants’ names when they are confirmed by DNA tests.
Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert with the International Crisis Group, said that if the drone strikes are conducted with “sensitivity’’ they would cripple Al Shabab without causing a public outcry about civilian deaths.
“Any increased foreign military involvement carries its own risks. However, short, sharp and surgical strikes to take out foreign jihadists or degrade Al Shabab may not be a bad thing,’’ he said. “Due care must be taken to avoid civilian deaths.’’
About 9,000 African Union forces in Somalia - led by troops from Uganda and Burundi - have gained ground in an offensive this year against Al Shabab fighters.
The Pentagon is sending nearly $45 million in military equipment to those two nations to help their troops in Mogadishu.
The aid includes four small, shoulder-launched Raven drones, body armor, night-vision gear, communications and heavy construction equipment, generators, and surveillance systems.
US officials have said they believe Al Shabab counts hundreds of foreign fighters - including veterans of the Iraq and Pakistan-Afghanistan conflicts - among its ranks. A Somali soldier last month killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a top Al Qaeda operative and the mastermind of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, a state of chaos that has allowed militancy and piracy to flourish. Faqi said the United States pays the bulk of the army’s salary, along with Italy, and that his government gets logistical and capacity building supports from America. He said his government is grateful but needs even more help with hospitals, communication equipment and vehicles.