NAIROBI, Kenya - Ethiopian and U.S. forces were in pursuit of three top al-Qaeda suspects yesterday, with a senior U.S. official confirming that none of them were killed in a U.S. air strike and were believed to still be in Somalia.
The official in Kenya, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media, said U.S. special operations forces were focused solely on tracking down the suspected terrorists and not members of the Somalian Islamic movement that had challenged the country's government for power.
A day earlier, Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, said a U.S. intelligence report had referred to the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the three senior al-Qaeda members blamed for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But the U.S. official said he was confident that none of the three top al-Qaeda suspects believed to be in Somalia were killed in the air strike Monday.
"The three high-value targets are still of intense interest to us," the official said. "What we're doing is still ongoing; we're still in pursuit, us and the Ethiopians."
The official also contradicted numerous statements by Somalian government officials in recent days, saying the United States had carried out just one air strike and only eight to 10 extremists with ties to al-Qaeda were killed. He said subsequent reports of more air strikes and civilian casualties were rumors and disinformation spread by the Islamic extremists.
Michael E. Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, also told the BBC yesterday that Fazul had not been killed.
U.S. and Somalian officials said Wednesday that U.S. special forces were in Somalia hunting al-Qaeda fighters and providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces. The U.S. forces entered the country last month when Ethiopia launched its attack against the Islamic movement, one of the officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Most of the Islamic militiamen have since dispersed, but a few hard-core members have fled to Somalia's southernmost point between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.
The United States has repeatedly accused the group of harboring three top terror suspects wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings: Fazul, Abu Talha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.
The U.S. Navy has moved additional forces into waters off the Somalian coast, where they have monitored maritime traffic and interrogated crews on suspicious ships in international waters.