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US Defends Anti-Terrorist Strike in Somalia


The State Department is defending U.S. military action in Somalia, saying it was aimed at senior figures of the al-Qaida terrorist organization. The U.S. diplomatic focus is now on assembling a peacekeeping force for Somalia to prevent a power vacuum when Ethiopian troops withdraw. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here are shrugging off criticism of the U.S. air activity, saying it came with the concurrence of Somali interim authorities and was based on credible information about the presence of al-Qaida figures at targeted sites.

The U.S. military action, the first in Somalia in more than a decade, has drawn criticism from among others the European Union and the new U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who said he is concerned it might escalate Somali hostilities.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the Bush administration has not gotten any official complaints, and he challenged the notion that action against al-Qaida will trigger a major political backlash in Somalia.

While deferring to the Pentagon on specifics of the activity or possible casualties, Casey said the United States took the action because of information about the presence on the ground of senior al-Qaida members.

"These are obviously international terrorists," he said. "And we have said repeatedly that when we have information that might lead us to be able to bring some of these people to justice, or to take action against them, then we will do what is necessary. Because we believe it's appropriate and in defense of the United States and the broader international community, since al-Qaida terrorism and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorism is not just something that struck at the U.S. So that's the basis of our action."

The Bush administration had maintained that members of an East African al-Qaida cell were given safe haven in Mogadishu by leaders of the Islamic Courts movement, before they were routed from the Somali capital by Ethiopian troops and those of the internationally-recognized Somali transitional government.

The al-Qaida members, believed to have been behind the 1998 truck bomb attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, are believed to have fled southward with leaders of the Islamist militias.

Spokesman Casey said the U.S. diplomatic priority is on deployment, as soon as possible, of an East African peacekeeping force in Somalia to prevent a power vacuum when Ethiopian troops withdraw. The Addis Ababa government has said it can't afford to keep troops in Somalia more than a few weeks more.

The U.N. Security Council a month ago authorized creation of an 8,000-member force from the regional East African group IGAD to shore up the transitional government, then under siege from Islamists in the regional town of Baidoa.

U.S. officials say the force is still needed despite the strategic turn of events in the country, and have pledged $14 million in logistical support for the force, to which only Uganda has so far committed troops.

While some Somali officials have urged a U.S. military presence on the ground, Spokesman Casey discouraged the notion the United States would become more broadly involved beyond what he termed this week's specific military action against a specific target.

He also said the United States is pressing the Somali interim authorities to reach out for dialogue with other major political actors in the country, including moderate elements of the Islamist movement, to try to build the first functioning government there since 1991.