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US Vessels Intercepting Ships in Arabian Sea - 2001-11-27

The Pentagon says U.S. and allied naval vessels have been intercepting suspect ships in the North Arabian Sea to prevent any possible escapes by al-Qaida operatives fleeing Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials say an undisclosed number of suspect vessels have been intercepted in recent days and queried about their ports of origin, destinations and cargo.

But so far, the officials tell VOA none of the vessels have been boarded and all were allowed to continue their journeys, apparently because coalition authorities determined there was no valid reason to stop the ships for detailed searches.

The Pentagon announced its plans for such intercepts last week as U.S. and anti-Taleban forces began tightening the net around al-Qaida terrorists inside Afghanistan. Officials indicate they had intelligence suggesting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and some of his top aides might try to flee abroad.

One country thought by U.S. officials to be a likely destination is Somalia where, they say, terrorist training camps are known to exist.

There are reports U.S. and allied ships as well as reconnaissance aircraft have been patrolling the seas and skies over Somalia in recent days.

The Pentagon will not comment on the reports. But one senior defense official tells VOA that because of Somalia's terrorist links, it would be "prudent for us to watch closely."

A top bin Laden aide believed killed in U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, Mohamed Atef, is suspected of having provided training and military assistance in 1993 to Somali gunmen opposed to the U.S. and United Nations humanitarian intervention in the country.

Somali businessmen and firms have more recently been suspected of funneling assets to al-Qaida.

Nevertheless, Somali representatives have told U.N. officials Somalia will not offer sanctuary to any terrorist and will arrest and expel any who do enter the country.

However Somalia does not have a fully functioning government whose authority extends over the entire country.