The United States acknowledged Friday it was flying drones out of Ethiopia under a counter-terrorism campaign in the Horn of Africa but said the aircraft were unarmed and not carrying out raids.
"The US has unarmed and unmanned aircraft at a facility there to be used only for surveillance as part of a broad, sustained integrated campaign to counter terrorism," Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby told AFP.
"These unmanned aircraft are being used only for surveillance and not conducting strike missions."
The Pentagon, the White House and the State Department confirmed the drone flights out of the airfield in Arba Minch after The Washington Post first reported the operation late Thursday.
But officials insisted the Reaper drones were not armed as the Post initially reported, citing unnamed officials.
The US Air Force's presence in Ethiopia is a delicate political issue there and American officials are anxious to downplay the role of the military and intelligence agencies across the region.
"There are no US military bases in Ethiopia. It's an Ethiopian airfield," Kirby said.
In support of Ethiopia's 2006 invasion of Somalia, US warplanes carried out attacks from a base in Ethiopia. The government, however, ended the arrangement once it became public.
Kenya sent forces into southern Somalia this month to chase Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants, but has denied the United States or other Western countries are actively involved in the operations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was determined to press ahead with counter-terror efforts, which have increasingly focused on Al-Qaeda's network in the Arabian peninsula and Shebab militants.
"We are harnessing every tool of American power -- military, civilian and diplomatic. The United States is strengthening its intelligence, military and security capabilities and drawing from the full range of enforcement tools in coordination with partners around the globe," Carney told reporters.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States has turned to drones to carry out a covert bombing campaign against Al-Qaeda and allied militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The raids are conducted under the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency, not the military, but special operations forces and drone aircraft can be assigned to the spy agency for the strikes.
The covert strikes are an open secret but top US officials decline to publicly acknowledge the raids.
Administration officials declined to comment on whether the drone surveillance flights out of Ethiopia were focused on Somalia.
But a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "We're obviously very concerned about instability in Somalia."
And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, when asked if the drones are aimed at tackling the Shebab threat, said: "It is designed to deal with terrorism throughout the region and the neighborhood in any form."
(c) 2011 AFP
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