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US takes hunt for Al Qaeda to Somalia

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On the heels of US air strikes Monday, US helicopter gunships strafed villages in Somalia Tuesday in an ongoing hunt for Al Qaeda operatives in the Horn of Africa.

US military officials say that Somalia's lawless state had become a safe haven for Al Qaeda activists, including possibly those responsible for the embassy bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998.

This week's attacks illustrate how much US military policy has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. As the US closes or downsizes massive cold war-era bases in Germany and South Korea, its presence is expanding in Uganda, Djibouti, Senegal, and São Tomé and Príncipe, African nations once seen as far beyond American interests. Today, African bases serve both as "jumping off" points for the war in Iraq and also as bulwarks against new threats in volatile regions of Africa.

At press time, the US military had not released the numbers nor the names of those killed in the attacks.

The sites attacked, close to the border with Kenya, were considered the last strongholds of Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which held sway over the country for the past six months until it was driven from power two weeks ago by an alliance between Somalia's transitional government and Ethiopia.

US helicopter gunships Tuesday carried out mopping-up operations, according to Somali officials, who added that "many" people had died in the attacks. Abdirahman Dinari, spokesman for Somalia's interim government said: "Most of them were Islamists." Unconfirmed reports from Somalia say civilians were among those killed, including a 4-year-old boy.

At press time, a key question is whether the US, in its first overt military operation in Somalia since the infamous "BlackHawk Down" intervention in 1992 and '93, has managed to hit the prime targets – Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, or Abu Taha al-Sudani.

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