In a further escalation of American involvement in Somalia, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived off the war-ravaged country's coast and its aircraft have begun flying intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia, the U.S. military said Tuesday.
The U.S. Central Command re-tasked the USS Eisenhower to Somalia last week from its mission supporting NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, said U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based.
The announcement comes a day after at least one U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunship launched a deadly strike against several suspected members of al-Qaida in Somalia. Brown said the Navy had no supporting role in U.S. attacks in Somalia.
The U.S. launched at least two more airstrikes against terror targets in Somalia on Tuesday, a Somali official and witnesses said.
The carrier joins three other U.S. warships two guided-missile cruisers and an amphibious landing ship already conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast, the Navy said.
Brown said he did not know how long the Eisenhower's redeployment would last. "We'll be there as long as required," he told The Associated Press.
Soldiers loyal to Somalia's U.N.-backed government and Ethiopia's military late last month drove out a radical Islamic group that had been in control of the country for six months.
The U.S. military dispatched the Eisenhower from its battle station in the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean coastal waters of Somalia "due to rapidly developing events in Somalia," the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet announced in a prepared release.
Brown said guided missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio and the amphibious landing ship USS Ashland were already patrolling the Somali coast in search of al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia in the wake of Ethiopia's December invasion.
Navy crews aboard the Bunker Hill, Anzio and Ashland have been boarding and searching commercial ships off the Somali coast, Brown said. No terror suspects have been found aboard any of the ships, he said.
"That's a sign that what we're doing is working," Brown said. "We're trying to deter the terrorists from using the sea. If we haven't detained anyone, that shows us that it's working."
The four warships fall under command of U.S. Rear Adm. Al Myers, aboard the Eisenhower, and are not part of the multinational task force conducting anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations in the region, Brown said.
The Eisenhower's compliment of F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft and E-2C Hawkeye airborne command-and-control craft had been operating over Afghanistan, Brown said. The Eisenhower also carries H-60 helicopters, reports AP.
"The addition of Eisenhower to Navy ships already operating in international waters off the coast of Somalia is a prudent step that enhances the (maritime security operations) capabilities that are being employed to deter individuals with links to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations the use of the sea as an escape route," the Navy said.
The Eisenhower's air wing's capabilities includes command and control, surveillance and reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and precision bombing "that can support emergent contingency operations if the situation should require air power," the Navy said.