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U.S. aircraft monitoring coasts of Somalia, Yemen

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Navy maritime patrol aircraft are flying regular reconnaissance and surveillance missions off the coast of Somalia and Yemen, Pentagon sources confirm to CNN.

The flights are coming out of Oman and are mainly being conducted by P-3 and EP-3 aircraft. They are looking for any unusual activity that might indicate escaping al Qaeda leaders are trying to make their way to Somalia.

The P-3 aircraft are equipped with optical sensors and cameras that can survey broad areas of ocean and allow monitoring of unusual shipping traffic. The U.S. Navy has a list of more than 20 ships it believes are potentially tied to Osama bin Laden.

The EP-3 aircraft is configured to gather electronic intelligence and will be able to monitor communications activity in the region.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that the Bush administration is concerned that the country could be a potential hideout.

"We've always made clear that we felt that Somalia and the situation that existed there made it a potential haven for terrorists," Boucher said Thursday.

A Somali group, Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya, or "Islamic Unity," is on the administration's list of terrorist groups. The group's goal is to create an Islamic state in Somalia and the group is believed to have links to bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network.

Boucher said U.S. officials have made contacts with Somali officials to discuss these issues but he declined to say if there were any active al Qaeda cells inside Somalia.

"Naturally we're concerned in any number of places and concerned that Somalia might become a safe haven, but that's a long distance from saying it's on a target list," he said.

In 1993, in the abortive U.S. mission to end a famine in Somalia, Somali rebels and Army Rangers in Mogadishu engaged in an 18-hour firefight in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. U.S. intelligence believes the rebels had help from al Qaeda and some in the Pentagon believe bin Laden concluded the U.S. military could be defeated simply by inflicting casualties.

Yemeni security forces recently launched an offensive against suspected al Qaeda hideouts. Yemen and the United States also have increased cooperation on terrorism since a meeting between U.S. President Bush and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in November.

Earlier this year, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official in the Middle East described Yemen as having "the second largest al Qaeda network outside of Afghanistan."

Seventeen U.S. sailors died in a terrorist attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen 13 months ago that U.S. officials suspect may have been connected with al Qaeda. A State Department report on terrorism says that al Qaeda conducted three bombings that targeted U.S. troops in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992.

-- Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.


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