By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - The United States has been funneling more than $100,000 a month to warlords battling Islamist militia in Somalia, according to a Somalia expert who has conferred with the groups in the country.
The U.S. operation, which former intelligence officials say is aimed at preventing emergence of rulers who could provide al Qaeda with a safe haven akin to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, appeared to be seriously set back on Monday when an Islamic coalition claimed control of Mogadishu.
U.S. government officials refused to discuss any possible secret U.S. involvement in the strategically placed Horn of Africa state, which has been wrecked by years of fighting.
But former U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said an operation to support the warlords' alliance appeared to involve both the CIA and U.S. military.
John Prendergast, who monitors Somalia for the think-tank International Crisis Group, said he learned during meetings with alliance members in Somalia that the CIA was financing the warlords with cash payments.
Prendergast estimated that CIA-operated flights into Somalia have been bringing in $100,000 to $150,000 per month for the warlords. The flights remain in Somalia for the day, he said, so that U.S. agents can confer with their allies.
The Bush administration has maintained a silence over allegations in recent months of a U.S. proxy war against Islamist radicalism in the country.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Commander Joe Carpenter reiterated the administration's position that the United States stands ready to "disrupt the efforts of terrorists wherever they may be active."
Claims of clandestine U.S. support for secular warlords who call themselves the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism" have been aired by Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and independent analysts.
A United Nations team charged with monitoring a U.N. arms embargo against Somalia has also said it is investigating an unnamed country's clandestine support for the warlords alliance as a possible violation of the weapons ban.
The former intelligence officials said the operation was controlled by the Pentagon through U.S. Central Command's Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, a counterterrorism mission based in neighboring Djibouti established after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
On Monday, after months of fighting that has killed around 350 people, the Islamic militia claimed control of Mogadishu and a warlord militiaman said his coalition's leaders were fleeing the capital.
U.S. intelligence has produced no conclusive evidence of an active al Qaeda presence in Somalia, experts said. But there have been reports of al Qaeda members in the country, including suspects in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.
"The Pentagon, and now the U.S. government as a whole, is convinced these are elements for establishing a religious-based government like the Taliban, that could be exploited by al Qaeda," said a former intelligence official knowledgeable about U.S. courterterrorism activities.
The CIA has given its warlord allies surveillance equipment for tracking al Qaeda suspects and appeared to view the warlords as a counter to the influence of Afghanistan-trained Islamist militia leader Aden Hashi Aryo, Prendergast said.
"By circumventing the new government and going straight to individual warlords, the U.S. is perpetuating and even deepening Somalia's fundamental problems, and compromising long-term efforts to combat extremism," Prendergast said.
Somalia, a country of 10 million people, has had no effective central authority since 1991 when warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The central government is based temporarily in the town of Baidoa and has been unable to control events in Mogadishu.
Americans have bad memories of U.S. involvement in Somalia in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and 79 injured in a battle with guerrillas loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid after entering the country to support a relief effort.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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