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CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti — American military commanders acknowledged deepening U.S. involvement in conflict-torn Somalia on Tuesday, confirming that a Navy aircraft carrier has taken up position off the coast and begun surveillance missions over the Horn of Africa nation.

The disclosure follows reports a day earlier that an American AC-130 gunship launched a deadly attack against suspected al-Qaida positions in southern Somalia — an area to where Muslim fighters had fled after being routed by Ethiopia’s military late last month.

The event would mark the first time since the ill-fated 1993 “Black Hawk Down” raid that U.S. forces have used overt, deadly force in the nation.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that a U.S. intelligence official said the United States killed five to 10 people in this week’s attack on a target in southern Somalia believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The AP reported that the United States has been trying to track the “big three” al-Qaida figures in East Africa for their roles in plots against the interests of the United States and its allies. They are Abu Talha al-Sudani, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.

The AP also reported that it was not immediately clear to the intelligence official if any of the three was hit in the attack. The official said there were new indications that the targeted area was linked to al-Qaida, rather than the Council of Islamic Courts, a Muslim organization that controlled most of Southern Somalia during the last six months of last year.

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has joined three U.S. warships already patrolling the volatile nation’s enormous coastline, the Navy said Tuesday. Prior to being reassigned to Somalia by the U.S. Central Command, the Eisenhower was supporting NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, of the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

Prior to the Eisenhower’s arrival, the guided-missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill and the USS Anzio — as well as the amphibious landing ship USS Ashland — had been searching for militants looking to escape from or infiltrate Somalia by sea. U.S. sailors have boarded a number of commercial vessels while patrolling the coastline, but have yet to detain any militants.

There was no stated timeline as to how long the Eisenhower and the other vessels would continue to monitor Somalia.

“We’ll be there as long as required,” Brown said.

Aircraft from the carrier known as the “Ike” had been flying missions into Afghanistan in support of the war effort there.

“Ike is the only carrier in the region, so we don’t have another carrier flying ... missions” into Afghanistan, Brown said.

The carrier has an air wing of about 75 aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornet and SuperHornet strike fighters, E-2C Hawkeyes, EA-6B Prowlers, and SH-60 Seahawks.

Air Force Lt. Col. Johnn Kennedy, a spokesman for the Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, declined to say if the coalition military has changed its makeup or presence of other aircraft to compensate for the Ike’s departure.

“We don’t usually discuss details of ongoing missions,” Kennedy said. “We are continuing to operate to meet the air requirements.”

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed Sunday night’s U.S. airstrikes, but shot down media reports of U.S. helicopter gunships launching further attacks on Tuesday.

Whitman confirmed the airstrike Sunday in southern Somalia against “principal al-Qaida leadership in the region,” but he had little further information on the matter.

“I’m not going to get into any of the military aspects or details of the strike beyond acknowledging that the strike did take place and that it was based on intelligence, credible intelligence, that led us to believe that we had principal al-Qaida leadership in an area where we could identify them and take action against them,” he said.

An unnamed Somalian defense official and “witnesses” were quoted in news reports Tuesday saying helicopter gunships had struck Islamist targets in southern Somalia.

The developments follow Ethiopia’s recent incursion into Somalia on behalf of that nation’s embattled, U.N.-supported government. Ethiopia’s Christian government elected to back the government in a bid to oust Islamist militiamen who had overtaken the capitol of Mogadishu and imposed harsh religious laws on a population that had previously endured 15 years of lawlessness and rule by warlords.

While U.S. military commanders based in Africa have said little about the conflict publicly, the U.S. has identified Ethiopia as an ally in the war on terror and also accused the Islamist militants in Somalia of harboring the al-Qaida terrorists who bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

U.S. military personnel with the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa also have spent the last four years training the Ethiopian National Defense Forces in basic military tactics.

Officials with CJTF-HOA, based in Djibouti, declined Tuesday to comment on the reported AC-130 attacks; media reports said the plane was based at Camp Lemonier. However, a spokesman for the U.N.-backed government in Somalia said the U.S. did stage attacks Monday afternoon on a small island at the southern tip of Somalia.

“The strike was carried out after it had been confirmed that al-Qaida members are hiding there in the area,” government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told The Associated Press. “We don’t know how many people were killed in the attack, but we understand there were a lot of casualties. Most were Islamic fighters.”

Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.

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