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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 21:57 GMT
US watches Somali al-Qaeda links
Man carrying Osama Bin Laden poster in anti-US demonstration in Mogadishu
Osama Bin Laden supporters in Mogadishu
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By the BBC's Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa
The US commander leading the global war against terrorism has told the BBC he has evidence that al-Qaeda terrorist cells are present in Somalia and says this is of "serious concern".

US soldier leaving Somalia in 1993
The last US troops in Somalia had to beat a retreat
General Tommy Franks, head of the US military's Central Command and commander of the war in Afghanistan, was speaking in an exclusive interview in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

He said he could not rule out the possibility of military intervention in Somalia, a country which has been wracked by clan-based factional fighting for more than a decade.

General Franks arrived in Addis Ababa on Friday after visiting Eritrea and Kenya. His visit to the region comes amid widespread speculation that Somalia could become the next target in the war against terrorism.

"We have known of links to al-Qaeda in and through Somalia for a considerable period to time. Locations and specifics is something that I cannot go into.

"But we are concerned about the situation in Somalia and we will not take off the table the possibility of action against countries of concern," General Franks told the BBC.

"We are interested in states where there is a history of terrorist networks, training, operations and that sort of thing. And so we are going to continue to keep our options open and continue to conduct dialogue with the frontline nations such as Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia", he added.

Somalia next?

General Franks said his visit was aimed at discussing "the global war against terrorism and other issues of security co-operation, as it relates to training, the sharing of intelligence information, and security assistance efforts that we have ongoing in the region".

1. Somalia: Suspected al-Qaeda base
2. Yemen: Bin Laden's ancestral home
3. Sudan: Attacked by US missiles in 98
4.Iraq: Threatened by President Bush

See also:
Detailed clickable map

Since the 11 September terror attacks, Somalia, which has been without an authoritative central government since January 1991, has been on the US State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Although an interim government known as the Transitional National Government (TNG) led by President Abdikassim Salat Hassan was set up in August 2000, it has little control over the country which is marred by division and fighting.

This makes it attractive to terrorist groups.

Ethiopia, together with the allied Somali opposition factions, the Somali Restoration and Reconciliation Council (SRRC), has been at the forefront in pushing for the international coalition to intervene in Somalia.

Ethiopia's role

Ethiopia, which shares its longest border with neighbouring Somalia, says it is worried about the possible spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa and about terrorist organisations based in Somalia such as al-Itthaad al-Islamia (AIAI), which has been infiltrating Ethiopia.

Ethiopian forces
Ethiopia wants to play a role in any attack on Somalia

In 1996, Ethiopia blamed AIAI for bomb attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere and this has led to low-profile Ethiopian military incursions into Somalia in recent years.

Since the 11 September attacks, it has exchanged intelligence information with the US, and if attacks go ahead on Somalia, Ethiopia would hope to play a significant role, similar to that of Pakistan in the war in Afghanistan.

General Franks said he expected closer co-operation with East African states:

"I have talked to the frontline states in the region about them sending liaison elements to the Central Command headquarters in Tampa and each of the countries is interested to do that and so I suspect that we will build our presence in Tampa by up to five countries in the very near future."

Warships at the ready

US warships are already stationed off the coast of Somalia, as analysts speculate that it will be the next target.

But General Franks stressed that anything was possible.

"One should not read too little into the coalition's activities off the coast of the Red Sea in recent months," he cautioned.

"The relationships that we have with Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea are strong. These states are very much a part of this coalition and so it is not unusual that in co-operation with these states, we would pay attention to areas where we believe there may be a problem" he said.

General Franks left Ethiopia on Sunday morning for Djibouti, the last leg of his African tour.

See also:

21 Dec 01 | Africa
Somalia's role in terror
20 Dec 01 | Europe
US chides German minister
13 Dec 01 | Africa
Somali 'terrorists return home'
27 Nov 01 | Africa
Somalia welcomes US troops
08 Nov 01 | Africa
Somali company 'not terrorist'
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