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Somalis wary of growing US scrutiny

The US-led coalition is building up forces off the Somali coast.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2002


In village after village in southwest Somalia, everyone points a finger in the same direction. Terrorists, they say, are in El Wak.

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With its 100 tin shacks, a few dozen mud huts, two mosques, one goat market, and one well, El Wak is not an inviting place. The sun beats down as swirls of dust whip into the eyes, coating body and hair. Water is scarce, employment is almost nonexistent. There are no telephones or electricity, no roads, no shade trees, no schools, no health clinics. The ground is littered with broken flip flops, old batteries, plastic bags, animal carcasses. Marabou storks rummage through the garbage. Old men cluster around tape recorders and listen to cassettes of religious instruction, following along in tattered Korans. The few taxes collected last year will help build a third mosque.

But are there terrorists here? The locals protest, but the US-led coalition is building up military forces off the coast and increasing surveillance activities.

The US is looking at several areas in Somalia where it suspects there are terrorist training camps with links to Al Qaeda, according to intelligence sources. Some are around the capital, Mogadishu, one is near Laascaanood in the north, one is on the island of Ras Kamboni, and one is here.

British, French, and US military reconnaissance flights have become more frequent in recent days, with US Navy P-3 planes doubling their missions over the country to four or five a week.

The Pentagon will soon have three Marine Expeditionary Units (with 1,200 troops each) patrolling the Somali coastline, ensuring Al Qaeda members escaping Afghanistan cannot find shelter on these lawless shores. Germany sent a fleet of six ships to the Horn of Africa Wednesday.

The US is continuing discussions with the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC), a loose grouping of warlords backed by Ethiopia who oppose the government in Mogadishu and have pledged to fight terrorism. Ethiopia reportedly sent 70 officers to Baidoa last week to train members of SRRC for fighting, though Addis Ababa denies it.

Here in El Wak, the locals spend hours every day huddled around transistor radios, listening to crackling newscasts from afar, and wondering if they are next on the US list. "We used to be very fond of America," says Adam Gedo, chairman of the El Wak elders council. "But now we are fearful.... We don't know what we have done," he says. "If we hear a plane, we cover our eyes and pray, because we think it is the US coming to bomb us."

In the early 1990s, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya - a fundamentalist group calling for unity through religion and the institution of Islamic law - was a growing force in Somalia, and particularly strong here in the Gedo region. After being expelled from the town of Luuq in northeast Gedo, it made El Wak into its regional headquarters, throwing out the elected town council and moving into the dilapidated police post.