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US airstrikes in Somalia almost equal those conducted in Iraq, Syria

By Staff reporter , Garowe Online

MOGADISHU, Somalia - The US has increased the rate of airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab in Somalia, almost equaling those conducted in Syria and Iraq this year against ISIS militants, in what could raise eyebrows on the war against terror in East Africa.

Previously, the US has been subjected to criticism for "being too soft" against the Al-Shabaab militants, who are keen to topple the fragile UN-backed Somalia government. Al-Shabaab, who is linked to Al-Qaida, has been in existence since 2008.

Throughout their terror and sophisticated raids, the militants have often targeted security forces and foreigners, although over 4,000 Muslims mainly in Somalia have been killed.

By March 9, US African Command had conducted 25 airstrikes this year in Somalia. Monday's drone attack left four militants dead at the vicinity of Janaale in Lower Shebelle, officials said.

Data released to VOA by a U.S. defense official show the U.S. carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from January 1 to March 1, the latest date in which strike data was available. A full strike report from Operation Inherent Resolve is expected later this week.

Strikes in Iraq and Syria have significantly tapered off since the territorial defeat of the Islamic State caliphate last March.

With the airstrikes almost at par, the records reveal US' seriousness in eliminating the militants, who have caused havoc in East Africa for over a decade now. It also shows that the Pentagon is keen to establish a functional state in Somalia.

Last week, the US military confirmed the death of Bashir Qorgab, the Al-Shabaab commander linked to deadly Manda Airfield raid in Kenya early this year. He was killed by a drone strike in Saakow Middle Juba, officials said.

But despite the significant progress made through the airstrikes, Al-Shabaab militants insist that most casualties are "innocent civilians". Ali Dhere, the group's spokesman, claimed that 82 percent of victims were "poor farmers" in Somalia.

US Africa Command, however, despite the few numbers of suspected militants succumbing to the airstrikes, insists that "elimination of even one terrorist is important" for the safety of people.

"Airstrikes are preventative measures to ensure al-Shabab does not increase in size and strength," AFRICOM spokesman Maj. Karl Weiss told VOA on Monday.

"That said, airstrikes and kinetic operations are not the command's primary effort in Somalia; our core activity is the training of Somali security forces."

Southern and central Somalia have been frequent targets for the US military. The militants took refuge in the remote villages after losing Mogadishu to allied forces in 2011.

Of significance is that the militants are now said to be moving to urban centers due to frequent raids in the villages. The US does not target towns due to the heavy presence of civilians, AFRICOM said.

AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen Townsend has said al-Shabab is the "largest and most violent" of al-Qaida's branches worldwide.

Defense officials have stressed that while al-Shabab does not possess the capability to strike the U.S. homeland, the group has the intent to do so.

"It is important to impact their ability to threaten peace and security in East Africa and prevent their threats against the U.S. from being a reality," Townsend said in a press release last month.

There have been plans to downscale US troops in Africa, a move which has, however, met resistance from sections of politicians in Washington. There are about 6,000 troops in Africa, with about 500 serving in Somalia.

Mark Esper, the Defense Secretary, however, insisted that "downsizing doesn't mean complete withdrawal" in his recent defense. President Donald Trump is keen to trim America's presence in proxy wars.

On Monday, AFRICOM observed that the airstrikes are "not ultimate solution" for Somalia's stability, adding that "we have initiated development plans through the US embassy in Mogadishu".

Al-Shabaab has been keen to raid the US bases. In September last year, they failed to break through the Ballidogle army base. However, they managed to kill three Americans at Manda Airfield in Kenya, which is manned by the Marine Corps.