US operations in Somalia will go on until key al-Qaeda targets are eliminated, a Pentagon official said on Wednesday, as debate sharpened over Washington's next move in the stricken nation.
The remarks followed last week's assault in Somalia using a fearsome AC-130 aircraft which US officials say killed at least eight people, described in Washington as radicals sheltering al-Qaeda's top Africa leadership.
The fact that the top members of Osama bin Laden's network are still presumed at large in the country is sparking speculation of possible follow-up operations and questions on whether Somalia will become the latest hot battlefront in the "war on terror."
Theresa Whelan, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said on Wednesday US forces were working to ensure "international terrorists who were seeking refuge in Somalia are brought to justice."
"When that is done, our operations will cease," she said, at a half-day conference on Somalia sponsored by US think tanks, without specifying how long operations might continue or offering details on future US troop deployments.
Some observers saw the strike as presaging an attempt to snuff out any resurgence of the fundamentalist Islamic Courts movement, which took control of most of Somalia last year before being ousted in a US-backed Ethiopian offensive.
The strike also fits into a long-term US goal of ensuring East Africa does not succeed Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda terror base.
Speculation over possible future US action is also being spurred by the mighty firepower of a US aircraft carrier battlegroup prowling off the African coast.
"It's a good question, and it's easier to pose it than answer it," said John Pike, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.
"It would appear that the Islamic Courts envisioned a Taliban-like enterprise -- just because we have run them out of downtown Mogadishu, doesn't mean we have heard the end of it," he said.
Critics of US policy say Washington exaggerated al-Qaeda's sway on the movement, in pursuit of their own geopolitical ends in the strategically sensitive Horn of Africa region.
"I think the US and Ethiopia overstated the case in order to justify the military intervention and ongoing air strikes," said John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group.
"There is certainly a dangerous al-Qaeda cell on the Indian Ocean coast that used Somalia as a safe haven and transshipment point [but] this kind of short-term military tactic devoid of any political strategy will backfire in the long run," he said.
Senior US officials argue however that security operations in Somalia co-exist with vigorous US diplomatic and political attempts to stabilize the fragile state after its latest political earthquake.
As well as chasing terrorists, Washington was also trying to mobilize global support for Somalia's weak transitional government, and to speed the deployment of an African peacekeeping force, Jendayi Frazer, assistant US secretary of state for African affairs, said at the conference.
Clan elders and residents in the area targeted by the US operation close to the Kenyan border claimed 100 people were killed in numerous air strikes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week.
Washington has said however that no civilians were killed and that US forces carried out only a single air strike.