WASHINGTON -- U.S. special forces and the CIA are preparing to move against al-Qaida elements believed hiding in the region around the Horn of Africa, possibly sending troops to capture fighters in Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland of Yemen, officials said Wednesday.
Eight hundred U.S. special forces have been moved to Djibouti, the tiny African nation facing Yemen, defense officials said.
The amphibious assault ship Bellieu Wood also is sailing in waters between Yemen and Africa and could be used as a platform for troops throughout the region, one official said.
The deployments are aimed at positioning people and equipment for any mission in the region, the U.S. Central Command said.
Officials declined to say whether an operation in Yemen or elsewhere in the region was imminent.
The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the Bush administration was working to step up anti-terror efforts in Yemen, believed a longtime base for some suspected al-Qaida and a sanctuary for others who fled the war in Afghanistan. It also was in Yemen that 17 American sailors were killed when the USS Cole was bombed as it refueled in 2000 in the port of Aden.
The CIA, which has its own paramilitary units, is in charge of the possible mission in Yemen, officials said. But a Pentagon team has been in the Middle Eastern country, also planning ways to help the Yemeni government go after suspected terrorists.
It was unclear whether the Yemenis would agree to the use of U.S. forces in their country, where anti-American Muslim militants have staged a number of bombings to try to derail the war on terror and militias in remote tribal areas challenge central authority.
But forces at the ready in Djibouti include the secret Delta group that specializes in hunting and snatching suspects from other country's territory, ABC News reported Tuesday night.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in the summer asked commanders to look at ways to push the hunt for al-Qaida beyond Afghanistan, possibly through greater use of special forces commandos.
Special forces played a lead role in the war in Afghanistan and were sent to Pakistan to help find al-Qaida figures who fled over the border. Rumsfeld is considering giving the Special Operation Command expanded control and responsibilities in the global war on terror.
In Yemen, little visible progress against terrorists has been made in recent months although the CIA has offered intelligence. The FBI turned over a list in February of al-Qaida network suspects believed in Yemen and U.S. special forces trained a small group of local forces in counterterror tactics this summer.
On the southern Arabian Peninsula and across the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea from Africa, the homeland of bin Laden's father long has been a base of and transit point for terrorists.
Yemen's importance as a terrorist haven was illustrated last week, when Pakistani authorities said they had captured 10 alleged members of al-Qaida, at least eight of them Yemenis.
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