WASHINGTON - U.S. special operations forces are in Somalia hunting suspected al-Qaida fighters, but Pentagon officials dismissed the idea they are planning to send any large number of ground troops to the African nation.
U.S. and Somali officials said Wednesday a small American team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces on the ground. The officials provided little detail and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The U.S. forces entered Somalia with Ethiopian forces late last month when Ethiopians launched their attack against the Islamic movement said to be sheltering al-Qaida figures, one of the officials said.
They spoke days after an American airstrike on a suspected al-Qaida target that U.S. officials have said killed up to 10 people.
The Navy has moved additional forces into waters off the Somali coast, where they have conducted security missions, monitoring maritime traffic and intercepting and interrogating crew on suspicious ships.
With the arrival of the USS Ramage guided missile destroyer, there were five ships Wednesday: the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio guided missile cruisers, and the USS Ashland amphibious landing ship, which officials said they could use as a brig for any captured suspects.
Despite the continuing operation in Somalia, two other senior U.S. defense officials said they had heard of no plans to put any sizable contingent of Americans into Somalia. They also spoke on condition of anonymity because the Pentagon typically does not talk about future operations or troops movement.
The small teams of special operations forces serving as liaison officers, advisers and trainers are a different matter, the officials said. They declined to specifically say whether additional teams are planned.
There are about 52,000 special operations forces in the U.S. active duty and reserve military, including SEALs, Green Berets and other commando-style troops who perform sometimes-clandestine missions behind enemy lines.
They also train foreign militaries, help them with intelligence and engage in other activities to build and maintain good relations with foreign populations and their authorities. Such forces have taken a more prominent role since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the Pentagon has adjusted to fighting a shadowy enemy.
Somalia's deputy prime minister said Wednesday that more American special forces were needed on the ground to help capture remaining extremists believed still hiding in Somalia.
"The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al-Qaida terrorists is for U.S. special forces to go in on the ground," said Hussein Aided, a former U.S. Marine. "They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people."
As for a larger deployment of conventional U.S. troops, a U.S. general last week told Washington reporters he did not expect it.
"Situations change but I do not see it now, and there's nothing that I've heard that implies that at all," Gen. William Ward, deputy commander of U.S. European Command and a former brigade commander in Somalia, told defense writers.
Ward has been mentioned as the possible commander for a planned new Africa command the Pentagon wants to set up to concentrate more on the region. Africa is now split between a number of commanders.