Al-Qaeda militants are operating with "great comfort" in Somalia, providing training and assistance to a radical military element loyal to the Islamic group that controls most of southern Somalia, a senior State Department official has said.
Jendayi Frazer, who heads the department's Africa bureau, said on Wednesday that a priority US goal is the capture of three militants wanted for the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and a hotel in Kenya in 2002.
The three are from Sudan, Kenya and the Comoros Islands, located off Africa's east coast.
"We're continuing to work with all sides in Somalia to try get those terrorists turned over and to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven," Frazer told a small group of reporters.
She emphasised that the Al-Qaeda presence goes well beyond the three suspects.
The administration has looked on with anxiety as Islamic militants, operating under the umbrella of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), have expanded their zone of influence in the country while marginalising a secular government that lacks authority despite the backing of the United Nations and the United States.
The secular authority, known is the transitional federal government, is based in the western Somali town of Baidoa, unable to expand its reach further.
The administration supports the creation of an African force, totaling a battalion or two, to train and protect the transition government.
The goal is to establish a balance in Somalia that would convince the Islamists that a military victory is impossible, thus creating conditions for a negotiated settlement between the two.