Aircraft bombs Islamist stronghold in Somalia
(Adds possible target, Kenyans released)
By Mohamed Ahmed
BAIDOA, Somalia, Oct 9 (Reuters) - An unidentified aircraft bombed an Islamist rebel stronghold in Somalia on Thursday, witnesses said, but it was unclear if there were any casualties.
U.S. forces have launched several airstrikes inside Somalia in recent months against al Shabaab insurgents who have been fighting Somalia's weak Western-backed interim government and its Ethiopian military allies since the start of last year.
"A plane bombarded the outskirts of our village," said Hassan Maalim in Goofgaduud, 30 km (18 miles) southwest of Baidoa, the seat of Somalia's parliament.
"The whole earth shook but we don't know the damage or death it caused. It was flying over us since morning."
In May, U.S. war planes killed al Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Ayro, who was said to be al Qaeda's top man in the country. That attack took place in Dusamareb, also in central Somalia.
Washington says al Shabaab has links to al Qaeda and has provided a safe haven for militants including the bombers of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Somalia-based al Qaeda operatives were also suspected in a suicide attack on Kenya's coast in 2002 that killed 15 people at an Israeli-owned beach hotel.
Resident Aden Mohamud said Thursday's attack appeared to be aimed at an al Shabaab column.
"We heard a big crash after something like a plane had roared over us," he said. "I think they targeted al Shabaab because we knew many of their battle-wagons were passing."
Locals say the attack may have been targeting Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Muktar Robow Abu Mansoor, who lives in the area. He was not answering his telephone on Thursday.
Analysts said they feared a backlash from Shabaab.
"I would not like to be in Baidoa right now. Last time this happened, we know what happened," one diplomat said, referring to a wave of insurgent attacks that followed Ayro's killing.
Having ruled south Somalia for six months in 2006 before being forced out by allied Ethiopian-Somali troops, the Islamists have regrouped and regained control over large swathes of the south, with the exception of Baidoa and Mogadishu.
U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for counter-terrorism operations in Somalia, said it was unaware of any air strike against Islamist targets on Thursday. "I don't have any information to confirm that any type of air strike happened," Centcom spokesman Bill Speaks said.
Insecurity in Somalia has fuelled a wave of kidnappings this year, with foreigners often targeted.
Somali gunmen released two Kenyans, an agriculture ministry worker and his driver, on Thursday who were seized earlier this week delivering seeds to farmers in the border area.
"Both of them were released and are safe in Mandera town. They are home now," Kenya's north east region police boss Steven Chelimo told Reuters, adding no ransom had been paid. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi, David Morgan in Washington, and Daud Yussuf in Garissa, Kenya; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne)
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