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MALKHADIR M. MUHUMED

Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya — U.S. military forces landed in Somalia to retrieve the bodies of dead or wounded militants after a U.S. drone strike targeted a group of insurgents, Somalia’s defense minister told The Associated Press on Friday.

The operation is at least the second time U.S. troops have landed in Somalia after a targeted strike, though no forces have been stationed there since shortly after the “Black Hawk Down” battle that left 18 Americans dead in 1993.

Defense Minister Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi called on the U.S. to carry out more airstrikes against the al-Qaida-linked militants, though he admitted that Somali officials appear not to have been informed about the June 23 operation near the southern coastal town of Kismayo beforehand.

“But we are not complaining about that. Absolutely not. We welcome it,” Faqi told AP. “We understand the U.S.’s need to quickly act on its intelligence on the ground,” he said. “We urge the U.S. to continue its strikes against al-Shabab because if it keeps those strikes up, it will be easier for us to defeat al-Shabab.”

U.S. officials have increased their warnings that the threat from Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group is growing and that militants are developing stronger ties with the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

New Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told lawmakers last month that as the core al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan undergoes leadership changes, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. needs to make sure that the group does not relocate to Somalia.

The only American military base in Africa is in the tiny nation of Djibouti, which lies on Somalia’s northern border. U.S. troops can also operate from Navy ships moving through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.

In 2009, U.S. helicopters swooped over a convoy carrying the al-Qaida fugitive Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in the U.S. raid. Elite commandos rappelled to the ground and collected two bodies.

Faqi said the June 23 attack was carried out by a U.S. drone, and that after the attack U.S. forces picked up militants who were either killed or injured. Residents in Kismayo reported hearing helicopters hovering overhead the night of the operation.

“We have intelligence reports from our own sources that the U.S. army picked up militants after the strike,” Faqi said, declining to disclose them. He said that the Somalia government would release the militants’ names when they’re confirmed by DNA tests.

In late 2009 the U.S. deployed drone aircraft to the island nation of Seychelles. A U.S. official said then that the drones were primarily for anti-piracy efforts but that he couldn’t rule out their use over Somalia.

Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert with the International Crisis Group, said if the drone strikes are conducted with “sensitivity” they would cripple al-Shabab without causing a public outcry over civilian deaths.

“Any increased foreign military involvement carries its own risks. However, short, sharp and surgical strikes to take out foreign jihadists or degrade al-Shabab may not be a bad thing,” he said. “Due care must be taken to avoid civilian deaths.”

The approximately 9,000 African Union forces in Somalia — led by troops from Uganda and Burundi — have gained ground in an offensive this year against al-Shabab fighters.

The Pentagon is sending nearly $45 million in military equipment to those two nations to help their troops in Mogadishu. The aid includes four small, shoulder-launched Raven drones, body armor, night-vision gear, communications and heavy construction equipment, generators and surveillance systems.

Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the AU peacekeepers, welcomed the U.S. assistance, saying it will help the force increase its surveillance abilities. “With the help of drones, we can locate insurgents in real time and deal with them decisively,” he said.

He also urged the U.S. to increase its strikes against militants to destroy insurgents’ command and control capabilities. “If you eliminate al-Shabab leadership, you are limiting their power to conduct successful military operations,” Ankunda said.

Even as the U.S. says it will increase its focus on al-Qaida and its affiliates, Faqi said al-Shabab fighters make an easier target than militants in Pakistan or Yemen, because Somalia has few mountainous areas that can serve as hideouts. He said he didn’t believe militants in Somalia are as experienced as in other parts of the world.

Still, U.S. officials have said they believe that al-Shabab counts hundreds of foreign fighters — including veterans of the Iraq and Pakistan-Afghanistan conflicts — among its ranks. A Somali soldier last month killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a top al-Qaida operative and the mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Somalia hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991, a state of chaos that has allowed militancy and piracy to flourish. Faqi said the U.S. pays the bulk of the army’s salary, along with Italy, and that his government gets logistical and capacity building supports from America. He said his government is grateful but needs even more help with hospitals, communication equipment and vehicles.

Faqi said al-Shabab is in a “very, very difficult situation nowadays, financially, militarily and morally,” and that any sustained aerial strikes would further weaken the militants, who control large swaths of the country’s southern and central regions, including portions of the capital, Mogadishu, despite the success of the African Union offensive.

“There is mistrust among its top leaders, and between Somalis and foreigners. So I believe that new aerial strikes against its leaders will be another nail in the coffin of al-Shabab,” he said.

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