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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 14:39 GMT
US chides German minister
US troops at a training facility
There is speculation where the US might strike next
Germany's Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping, is under fire for reportedly predicting US strikes on Somalia as part of Washington's fight against Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Mr Scharping is believed to have made the comments, which were first attributed to a "senior German official", at an off-the-record briefing in Brussels.

But the "Financial Times Deutschland" newspaper revealed the source, after the German Government distanced itself from the remarks and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed them as "nonsense".

German Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping
Rudolf Scharping is under pressure - again

"The German was wrong. He didn't mean to be, and he is probably sorry, but he was flat wrong," Mr Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference without mentioning Mr Scharping's name.

The German Foreign Ministry described the comments about Somalia as "very peculiar".

"There is no planning for Somalia, the Americans have said that quite clearly," spokesman Andreas Michaelis said.

Mr Scharping said in the remarks attributed to him: "Anybody who rules out Somalia is a fool."

"It is not a question of 'if' but of 'how' and 'when'."

Concern over Somalia

The comments were first reported after Mr Rumsfeld had briefed Nato officials in Brussels on US plans earlier this week.

Despite Mr Rumsfeld's rebuttal, the US has expressed concern about Somalia.

Somalia is among the countries identified by US officials as harbouring al-Qaeda groups or other organisations linked in some way with Osama Bin Laden.

And General Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged that Somalia is a potential target for "diplomatic, law enforcement action or potentially military action."

The Bush administration had identified one Somali group, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, or Unity of Islam, as having links to al-Qaeda.

'Diplomatic exchanges'

There also have been repeated reports about the US gathering intelligence in Somalia.

The State Department in Washington on Wednesday confirmed that a US diplomat had travelled to the Somali capital Mogadishu for "continuing diplomatic exchanges".

US military officials earlier this month visited Baidoa, a Somali town controlled by armed groups opposed to the fledgling transitional government in power in Mogadishu.

See also:

17 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's hiding places
17 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The war ahead
11 Dec 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Somalis feel US squeeze
12 Dec 01 | Monitoring
Three countries fear US wrath
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