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U.S. fears al-Qaida may regroup

Officials say many of its members have fled to Somalia

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U.S. forces are increasing reconnaissance flights over Somalia, looking for signs that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network is reforming in the lawless African country, U.S. officials said.

Dozens of al-Qaida members fleeing the fighting in Afghanistan have arrived in Somalia, which already had a small presence of the terrorist group, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Al-Qaida also has ties to a larger, native Islamic fundamentalist movement, called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which aims to set up an Islamic state in Somalia.

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

"We are working to ensure that Somalia is not a haven for terrorists," Boucher said.

One official suggested that any U.S. military force in Somalia would be modest.

As it did in Afghanistan, the United States could turn to friendly tribes and warlords in the country to do most of the ground fighting. But tribal leaders, eager for U.S. support, often allege that rival factions have links to bin Laden.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the the U.S. military shut down the desert Camp Rhino Thursday and turned it over to Afghan government authorities after being returned to its original state — a simple airstrip, Marine spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said.

Also, the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne is taking over a base at Kandahar Airport from the Marines, Upton said today. The handover suggests the area has been secured and the operations have moved into a new phase.

Afghan officials said they were negotiating with tribal leaders to surrender weapons and were scouring mountain areas today for the fugitive Taliban leader and 1,500 of his fighters.

An aide to Kandahar's intelligence chief said today that the village where Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is believed to be located was "surrounded," though he did not identify it. In Washington, officials said no deal had been offered to the United States' second most wanted man, after bin Laden.

The governor of the southern city of Kandahar, Gul Agha, said Thursday his men were not negotiating with Omar but were continuing to search for him and to persuade tribal leaders to disarm.

If Omar doesn't agree to surrender, the Baghran region in the mountains north of Kandahar where he is believed to be hiding faces possible bombing by U.S.-led warplanes, Afghan and Pakistani military officials said.

U.S. warplanes bombed a suspected al-Qaida base in eastern Afghanistan for the second time in as many days today after coalition observers detected some of bin Laden's forces trying to regroup there, military officials said.

The second strike on the Zawar Kili camp near Khowst took place in late morning, after coalition forces detected some activity at the base in the hours following the first strike, said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.