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US Seeks to Prevent Escape of al-Qaida Figures From Somalia

The United States said Wednesday it is patrolling Somalia's coast and consulting with its neighbors to try to prevent the escape of terrorist suspects after Ethiopia's military rout of Islamist militias there. A top State Department official is in Addis Ababa to discuss the Somali situation. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Bush administration officials had said in recent months that al-Qaida figures had been sheltered by, and perhaps even had positions of authority, in Somalia's formerly dominant Islamic Courts movement.

Now they say the United States is patrolling the Somali coast and having talks with Somalia's neighbors to try to prevent terrorists from escaping the country, after the Islamic militia group's military collapse.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer began talks in the region Wednesday after intervening Ethiopian troops, and forces from Somalia's Baidoa-based interim government, routed the Islamists from their last stronghold in southern Somalia earlier this week.

In the wake of the surprising battlefield turnabout, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. naval units from the Gulf region are involved in the interdiction effort.

"We would be concerned that no leaders, or members, of the Islamic Courts who have ties to terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are allowed to flee and to leave Somalia," he said. "So that is of great concern to us. And we of course have a presence off the coast of Somalia and the Horn of Africa to make sure there are no escape routes by sea where these individuals could flee."

The United States believes that members of an al-Qaida cell responsible for the 1998 truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and also 2002 attacks on Israeli interests in Kenya, were in the Somali capital Mogadishu when it came under control of the Islamic Courts last June.

U.S. officials believe they now may have joined leaders of the militia movement in flight from the capital, where spokesman McCormack said only a rag-tag group of teenaged fighters had been left to confront the Ethiopians.

McCormack said Assistant Secretary Frazer began her mission in Addis Ababa and was to have talks Wednesday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who was also in the Ethiopian capital.

Uganda is the only country to have publicly committed troops to a proposed East African peacekeeping force for Somalia, which was approved by the U.N. Security Council a month ago when it appeared the Islamic militiamen were about to overrun the internationally recognized interim government.

Spokesman McCormack said the United States continues to support the proposed force to bolster the interim administration despite the changed strategic situation.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles told the country's parliament Tuesday his financially strapped government cannot afford to keep forces in Somalia much longer, and that the country's stability depends on the speedy arrival of foreign peacekeepers.

McCormack said that after the talks in Addis Ababa, Assistant Secretary of State Frazer will meet Friday in Kenya with diplomats from African and European countries making up the international "contact group" on Somalia.

He said Frazer will also visit Djibouti, which borders Somalia in the north, and Yemen, which lies across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia and has been the destination of refugees trying to flee Somalia by boat.

The State Department said U.S. foreign aid chief Randall Tobias will hold a meeting of potential donor countries in Washington Thursday to try to generate new humanitarian aid commitments for Somalia.