U.S. aircraft carried out two strikes Thursday against a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia, days after President Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal of the estimated 800 U.S. troops in the East African nation, according to U.S. Africa Command.
"We will continue to apply pressure to the al-Shabaab network" despite the drawdown, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM's commander, said in a statement. "They continue to undermine Somali security and need to be contained and degraded."
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The airstrikes targeted al-Shabaab explosives experts near the town of Jilib, about 207 miles southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Juba valley, AFRICOM officials said.
At a U.S. Naval Institute forum last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said that the Lower Juba valley remained an al-Shabaab stronghold despite years of U.S. airstrikes and efforts to train Somali security forces in fighting the rebels.
"[Al-Shabaab] remains a dangerous franchise of Al Qaeda," Townsend said in his statement. "We continue to monitor the threat and support our partners through training and military and diplomatic engagement."
Townsend added that the U.S. was relocating forces in the region, possibly to Kenya and Djibouti, "but we will maintain the ability to strike the enemy."
AFRICOM gave no indication of the type of aircraft used in the strikes, but officials said the initial damage assessment showed that the airstrikes "killed terrorists who were known to play important roles in producing explosives for [al-Shabaab], to include vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices."
AFRICOM officials said the VBIEDS, a main weapon for al-Shabaab, have been used an estimated 45 times in Mogadishu alone since 2018 and had killed more than 400 civilians, security forces and government officials.
Last Friday, the Defense Department confirmed that Trump had ordered the withdrawal of most troops from Somalia. The effort is in line with his mandate to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500, and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq, by Jan. 15.
In a statement, DoD said "the majority" of troops in Somalia would be withdrawn, leaving the possibility that a small number would remain in Mogadishu for a continuing advise and assist mission DoD with Somali forces.
"While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy," DoD said. "We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition."
China has established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, a few miles from AFRICOM's main hub in East Africa, and Russia on Tuesday announced an agreement with Sudan to establish a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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