US carries out 3 drone strikes against extremists in Somalia

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…As Trump offers to mediate in South China Sea row***

U.S. forces say they have carried out three drone strikes within 24 hours in Somalia, stepping up their campaign against the Islamic extremist rebels of al-Shabab and the Islamic State group.

The strikes by unmanned drones killed several extremist fighters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military command in Africa told The Associated Press Sunday. With these three attacks, the U.S. has now carried out 26 attacks in Somalia against extremist targets in 2017, she said.

The latest U.S. strikes were carried out in coordination with Somalia’s government, she said.

The first strike happened Saturday at approximately 4:30 p.m. local Somalia time and it killed one fighter for the extremists group, al-Shabab, said a U.S. Africa command statement. The strike occurred near Gaduud, about 250 miles southwest of the capital, Mogadishu, it said.

The U.S. strike came after al-Shabaab attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali forces, it said.

“We assess no civilians were anywhere near the site,” said the spokeswoman. “We take all measures during the targeting process to painstakingly ensure that civilian casualties and collateral damages are avoided and that we comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.”

The second strike occurred Sunday at approximately 3 a.m. against al-Shabaab, in the Lower Shabelle region about 40 miles west of the capital Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa, has been blamed for the massive truck bombing in Mogadishu last month that killed more than 350 people. It was Somalia’s worst-ever attack and one of the world’s deadliest in years.

Al-Shabab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida “and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world,” said the spokeswoman, adding that al-Shabab “has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region.”

The third strike was against the Islamic State group in Somalia’s northern Puntland area, she said. It happened at about 9 a.m. Sunday. This is the second U.S. strike against the IS group in Somalia. The first was earlier this month. The IS group has emerged in Somalia over the past two years and many of its fighters have defected from al-Shabab.

“U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats,” said the spokeswoman. The U.S. forces are working with Somalia’s security forces and the 22,000-strong African Union force of soldiers from neighboring countries and they are “targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world,” she said.

The Trump administration earlier this year approved expanded military operations against extremists in this Horn of Africa nation.

Somalia’s president has vowed a “state of war” against the extremists but concern is growing about that when the African Union force leaves Somalia, the national army will not be able to cope. The AU this week announced the beginning of its withdrawal from the long-chaotic and still heavily fractured nation, saying it will cut 1,000 troops by the end of the year. The AU pullout is set to be complete by the end of 2020.

In the meantime, US President Donald Trump offered Sunday to mediate in a territorial dispute over the resource-rich South China Sea, after years of Chinese island-building in the contested waters.

Trump`s surprise proposal to insert himself into the decades-long row risked a backlash from China, which has repeatedly said the United States has no role to play in what it insists is a series of bilateral issues.

“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know… I am a very good mediator,” Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi during an official state visit.

Hours later, the Communist leaders of China and Vietnam said they had reached a “consensus” on handling the disputed waters during a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hanoi, according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

The countries “reached an important consensus in accordance with leaders of the two parties and countries, to appropriately manage maritime issues, steadily advance all forms of maritime cooperation, including joint development and jointly strive to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Xinhua reported.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually. It is also believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, and the dispute has long been seen as a potential trigger for conflict in Asia.

Vietnam has courted support from Washington in the row, as it and other claimants have been powerless to stop China`s efforts in recent years to cement its claims by building artificial islands in disputed areas.

Those islands are capable of serving as military bases, and some of the rival claimants are concerned that China will soon establish de facto control of the waters.

Tensions spiked this year when Vietnam suspended an oil exploration project in an area of the sea also claimed by Beijing, reportedly over pressure from its powerhouse communist neighbour.

In 2014, China moved an oil rig into waters off Vietnam`s coast, sparking violent protests in several Vietnamese cities.

Trump`s offer came just before he flew to the Philippine capital of Manila for another regional summit.However, his proposal was not immediately accepted by the Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to defuse tensions with China over the row in favour of closer economic ties.

“We thank him for it. It`s a very kind, generous offer because he is a good mediator. He is the master of the art of the deal,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said when asked about Trump`s offer.

“But of course the claimant countries have to answer as a group or individually and not one country can just give an instant reply because mediation involves all of the claimants and non-claimants.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he had discussed the dispute with Xi when they met on the sidelines of APEC in the Vietnamese city of Danang on Saturday.

“He assured us again: `Do not worry, you have all the rights of safe passage. That will also be applicable to all countries`,” Duterte told reporters after arriving back in Manila.

But that assurance appeared to be based on a premise of China controlling the waters, and whether it would allow other countries to pass through them.

On Monday China and ASEAN are expected to announce in Manila that they have agreed to begin talks on a code of conduct for the sea.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will promote the agreement as an important breakthrough, Filipino foreign department spokesman Robespierre Bolivar told reporters last week.

However, the talks are not expected to begin until “sometime next year” and, at China`s insistence, any agreement will not be legally binding, Bolivar said.

Vietnam had been pushing for the code to be legally binding. But with the Philippines acceding to China`s demands, ASEAN agreed in August that it would not have any legal force.

China agreed in 2002 to begin talks on a code, but has delayed actually doing so while carrying out its expansionist strategy.

ABC with additional report from Zee

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