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US warship attacks Islamic militants in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- A US destroyer pounded Somalia's remote coastal northeast, targeting Islamic militants hours after a gun battle with Somali government forces that left eight insurgents dead, officials said yesterday.

The fighting late Friday, which the provincial government said included an American militant, appeared to mark the opening of a new front against Islamic militants in Puntland, a semiautonomous region that has remained relatively peaceful through Somalia's anarchy.

The government declared victory in April against insurgents in Mogadishu. Since then, officials of the government and Ethiopian troops sent to prop it up have been targeted in bomb attacks.

"The insurgency appears to be spreading to other parts of Somalia," said Ted Dagne, specialist in African affairs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

Puntland Vice President Hassan Dahir Mohamoud said eight foreign militants were killed in the fighting and Somali forces were pursuing five others. He said there were no civilian casualties because the area is uninhabited.

Mohamoud said the Puntland government had asked the US Navy to help fight the militants.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, could not confirm US involvement in Friday's fighting, but added: "The very nature of some of our operations, as well as the success of those operations is often predicated on our ability to work quietly with our partners and allies."

A task force of coalition ships, called CTF-150, is permanently based in the northern Indian Ocean and patrols the 1,880-mile Somali coast in hopes of intercepting international terrorists. US destroyers are normally assigned to the task force and patrol in pairs.

US officials have said that several suspected Al Qaeda operatives remain in the country, despite efforts by Somali forces to drive them out.

Friday's attack was aimed at a remote region outside the port town of Bargal in the Puntland region in northeast Somalia.

Mohamoud said the Somali government knew the nationalities of five of the militants who were targeted Friday: the United States, Britain, Sweden, Eritrea, and Yemen. He said they were identified from their passports.

"We have successfully completed the operation against the terrorists who came here and we are chasing the other five," said Mohamoud, speaking from Puntland's capital, Garowe. He said the total number of militants was 13; government officials earlier reported as many as 35.

Muse Gelle, a regional governor, said the militants arrived in the area near Bargal by speedboat on Wednesday.

Musa Ismail Mohamed, a former government economist who lives in Puntland, compared the area where the fighting took place to Afghanistan's Tora Bora, which US forces besieged in 2001 in a failed effort to flush out Osama bin Laden.

"Americans should strike it harder than yesterday and then they will succeed. If they do not do that, then maybe Bargal may become a stronghold for terrorists," Mohamed said yesterday, speaking on the phone from Puntland's main port, Bossaso.