'Al Qaeda keen on new bases in Somalia'

NAIROBI - At least 12 al Qaeda operatives have crossed from Yemen into Somalia in the last two weeks, bringing money and military expertise to Somali rebels battling the Western-backed government, a senior Somali official said.

Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels are waging a deadly insurgency against the transitional government headed by a former rebel and are intent on imposing a harsh version of Sharia Islamic law throughout the war-ravaged nation.

Meanwhile, a smaller group, Hizbul Islam, has expressed for the first time its loyalty to al Qaeda and invited Osama bin Laden to Somalia.

"Our intelligence shows 12 senior al Qaeda officials came into Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks," said treasury minister Abdirahman Osman.

"They were sent to . see if al Qaeda may move its biggest military bases to southern Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Osman did not say who the al Qaeda members were.

Western agencies have long feared that Somalia's porous borders and lack of a strong central government could make the Horn of Africa nation a safe haven for militants.

Since plunging into anarchy in 1991, hundreds of thousands of people have perished from famine, war and disease in Somalia. Multiple attempts to set up central rule have failed. - Reuters