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Europe

Somalia targeted

Europe urges caution, the US ponders action. In this "war on terror", Somalis have little say in their own fate.

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Watchful in Mogadishu

Their fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan seemingly at an end, US policymakers carrying out President George W. Bush's order to "root out" all terrorist organizations "with global reach" have set their sights on Somalia.

But US and European officials are divided on how to deal with the east African country's suspected terror links.

Though top German officials and European Union allies have warned against unilaterally expanding the US-led military effort beyond the Afghan theatre of operations, leaders in Washington have thrown new focus this week on Somalia.

But calls for attack are far more difficult to justify against Somalia than in the case of Taliban-run Afghanistan, which hosted al Qaeda’s leadership until its demise.

Messy place

Somalia’s clan-based society, broken by years of war and poverty is ruled by a provisional government that has minimal territorial control outside the capital city, Mogadishu.

Interim Prime Minister Hassan Abshir Farah has invited US troops to search for al Qaeda links in Somalia.

But so far he has received just one US visit, officially, while Washington's military intelligence authorities have reportedly made advisory links with one rebel group.

Beyond Farah’s control, warlords compete for run of the land, which rounds the Horn of Africa and is almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.

Despite the interim leader’s invitation to US forces, he denies there are any "terrorist training camps" in his country. But US officials claim there are links to al Qaeda through a Somali Muslim group whose assets the US froze in September, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya.

It is a terribly complicated situation, fraught with doubts over who controls what assets where, and whether their declared intentions reflect their true motives.

"Possible sanctuary"

US Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz asserted Monday that Somalia "has a certain al Qaeda presence already" as a "possible sanctuary" for members of Osama bin Laden's group, fleeing the Afghan theatre of operations.

Concerned that such hawkish warnings could be a prelude to a US attack, EU envoy Rino Serri warned preemptively that air-strikes would be "senseless".

Allied plans

European governments have allied themselves closely with the US military effort in Afghanistan, as well as "anti-terror" financial and policing tactics around the globe.

But Germany’s government has promised "no military adventures" and other European governments are similarly wary of a wider war, especially in a highly fluid place such as Somalia.

Neighbouring Kenya has warned that US attacks in the region could trigger the activation of al Qaeda agents based in Africa, increasing the threat rather than diminishing it.

US forces have bad memories of Somalia. In 1993, upon the invitation of various warlords, they staged an attempted peacekeeping operation there, only to find themselves drawn into a dangerous conflict when local allies turned on them.

A United Nations peacekeeping force that stayed on in Somalia until 1995 also left with its mission unaccomplished.

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