More authority to act in Somalia would be 'very helpful' - U.S. general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of U.S. forces in Africa told reporters on Friday that greater authority to fight al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants in Somalia would lead to more flexibility and quicker targeting, but that a decision had not yet been made by the White House.

Al Shabaab has been able to carry out deadly bombings despite losing most of its territory to African Union peacekeepers supporting the Somali government.

The United States has a small presence in Somalia and is allowed to carry out strikes in defence of partnered forces.

"Regardless of what combatant commander was sitting here this afternoon, I think they would all tell you that it is very important and very helpful for us to have a little bit more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness in terms of decision-making process and ... it will allow us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion," Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said at a press conference.

Critics of former President Barack Obama's administration said that it took too long for Washington to approve strikes against militants when they surfaced, allowing some to escape.

Obama's supporters, however, said greater scrutiny of U.S. military power helped reduce civilian casualties and the risk of "mission creep."

Waldhauser also said there was no need to "sound the alarm" about a potential resurgence of piracy off Somalia's coast after pirates seized a small oil tanker, the first such incident since 2012.

"It is too early to say that now we have an epidemic, but it did catch our attention," Waldhauser said.

In their heyday in 2011, Somali pirates launched 237 attacks off the coast of Somalia, data from the International Maritime Bureau showed, and held hundreds of hostages.

Separately, Waldhauser said the United States had severely weakened the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebellion group, but had not been able to capture its leader Joseph Kony.

A regional task force, including U.S. troops, has been hunting the down the group.

"This thing is coming to an end to be very frank ... We think that we have a plan in place for a steady state, sustainable transition that will not only look out for Kony or any other groups that would emerge in that part of the country," Waldhauser said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart.; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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