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Pentagon Keeps an Eye on Somalia - 2001-12-11


Pentagon officials say they have no information about a reported visit by U.S. soldiers to Somalia on Sunday. Somalia is coming under close American scrutiny in the war on terrorism.

Neither Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz nor top Pentagon operations official Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem could comment when asked about the reported U.S. troop visit to the Somali town of Baidoa.

But Mr. Wolfowitz tells Pentagon reporters military planners are obviously interested in Somalia because of its links to terrorism. "Obviously we are thinking," he said. "We not only are thinking, we're doing - is to try to observe, survey possible escape routes, possible sanctuaries. And people mention Somalia for obvious reasons. It's a country virtually without a government; a country that has a certain al-Qaida presence already."

According to news reports from the region on Monday, a group of U.S. military officers, possibly accompanied by several Ethiopian officers, visited Baidoa on Sunday. They are reported to have toured the airport and other facilities and held talks with local faction leaders.

No other details are known.

But there are signs of growing U.S. interest in Somalia as a possible target in the ongoing anti-terrorist campaign stirred by the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington.

U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner recently visited neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, warning in Nairobi last week of the activities of Somali groups linked to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon was in Kenya Monday and discussed Somali affairs and other topics with local officials.

There are reports that bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group has facilities in Somalia, possibly including a logistics and training base at Ras Komboni, a small port near the Kenyan border.

But U.N. officials report one of their Somali staffers recently conducted an assessment mission in the area and visited the port. He is said to have found only an orphanage.

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