WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is prepared to step up assistance to African Union forces in Somalia and take more aggressive action against al Shabaab Islamist rebels who carried out deadly bombings in Uganda earlier this month, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
U.S. intelligence agencies have warned of growing links between al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda’s network in East Africa, and the Obama administration has made it a priority to track and target top militants in both groups, officials said.
The expanded U.S. military assistance to African Union forces could include additional equipment, training, logistical support and information-sharing, said General William Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested lethal operations targeting al Shabaab could expand as well.
“This terrorist group is primarily focused on targets in the region, but we can’t discount its aspirations to conduct operations elsewhere,” the official said, calling connections between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in Africa “deeply troubling.”
“It’s hard to figure out in some cases where one group ends and the other begins. They train together and obviously share the same penchant for hatred and violence. That’s why it’s critical that we take aggressive action to thwart them,” the counterterrorism official said.
“Our efforts are aggressive and have intensified.”
A growing U.S. role in the conflict could fuel anti-American sentiment in Somalia some 18 years after a bloody U.S. battle in Mogadishu that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
Fighting between al Shabaab rebels and government forces in the north of Somalia’s capital has killed at least 52 civilians and wounded scores over the past week, according to a local rights group.
The violence in Mogadishu has intensified since al Shabaab suicide bombers killed 73 people watching the World Cup final in Uganda’s capital. They were the group’s first successful strikes outside Somalia.
Troops from Uganda and Burundi make up the roughly 6,300 strong African Union force protecting key sites in Mogadishu and there have been calls for their mandate to be widened so they can go on the offensive against the al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
“The nations that are contributing forces to ... the African Union mission in Somalia — we are working very closely with their logistics, their training, their transportation, information that they would use to be effective in what they do, and we continue looking to ways, based on what they ask us, to enhance these efforts,” Ward told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
He said the envisaged expansion in U.S. assistance was not triggered by the Uganda bombings: “We were already looking at how can we be more robust in helping these nations.”
Asked by reporters later if unmanned U.S. military drone aircraft could be used to support African Union contingents on the ground, Ward said: “That’s not a part of it at this point in time.”
“It’s all considered but it’s nothing that’s been determined,” he added.
Ward played down the impact of the recent bombings in Uganda on the resolve of African states to send forces to Somalia, telling reporters: “At this point in time they (troop-contributing nations) remain committed to it. So we take them at their word and we’re hopeful that will be the case.”
Al Shabaab and another Islamist militia have been fighting the Western-backed Somali government since the start of 2007. They control much of the capital but have failed so far to drive President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed from office.
The African Union force, known as AMISOM, has stepped in at key moments to protect the president’s palace and Uganda said last week it was ready to send another 2,000 troops to help take the fight to the rebels.
At least 21,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the insurgency. Aid agencies and rights groups have become increasingly concerned about indiscriminate shelling and some have accused combatants on all sides of war crimes.
Al Shabaab said the suicide attacks in Uganda on July 11 were to avenge the killing of civilians by African Union forces.