29 October 2011

Kenya: Conflicting Claims Over Use of U.S. Drones in Somalia

The secrecy surrounding the United States' extensive network of unpiloted aircraft in East Africa is producing conflicting claims regarding US drone operations in Somalia.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that armed Reaper drones are being flown on counter-terrorism missions from a civilian airport in the southern Ethiopian city of Arba Minch.

This account is consistent with another in The Times of London which also confirmed that the French navy had been bombarding coastal ports held by Al-Shabaab with cruise missiles from warships stationed off the southern Somali coast.

But it is the confirmation of the use of the Arba Minch base which has been operational for several months with staff from the US 17th Air Force, in spite of Ethiopian denials, which ratchets up the escalating conflict in southern Somalia.

Arba Minch is an ideal base for the unmanned drones as it is within their 1,150 mile maximum flying capacity unlike the US base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

The BBC, however, reports that the Ethiopia-based drones are unarmed and are being used only for surveillance. All these news outlets cited US officials as their source.

They are not named in the BBC report, while the Washington Post attributes its information to Master Sgt James Fisher, a spokesman for the US Air Force unit that oversees operations in Africa.

Ethiopia's government, through its embassy in Washington, meanwhile denies the presence of a drone base that the US Air Force spokesman has confirmed.

Master Sgt Fisher does not specifically indicate in the Washington Post story whether the Reaper drones, known as hunter-killers, are attacking Al-Shabaab positions in support of Kenya's military offensive in Somalia.

State Department and Pentagon officials have said in recent days that the US is not providing armed assistance for Kenya's incursion.

The aim of the US base at the Arba Minch airport is "to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programs," Master Sgt Fisher tells the Post.

The newspaper adds that the United States has invested millions of dollars in the Arba Minch facility "where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs".

The base became operational sometime this year, the Post says.

Arba Minch is located about 300 miles south of Addis Ababa and about 600 miles east of Ethiopia's border with Somalia.

Standard models of the Reaper drone have a range of about 1150 miles, the US Air Force says.

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