U.S. launches missile strike in Somalia

(Adds Pentagon, Mujahideen Youth Movement comment)

KISMAYU, Somalia, March 3 (Reuters) - Two missiles hit a house in southern Somalia on Monday, in an attack the United States said was directed at "a known al Qaeda terrorist".

It was the fourth U.S. strike in 14 months on Somalia, where Washington believes Islamists are giving shelter to wanted al Qaeda figures.

"This attack was against a known al Qaeda terrorist," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington.

"As we have repeatedly said, we will continue to pursue terrorist activities and their operations wherever we may find them," he said, declining to provide details of the operation.

Residents of Dobley, a remote Somali town 220 km (140 miles) from the southern port city of Kismayu on the Kenyan border, said they believed the missiles were targeting senior Islamist leaders meeting nearby.

Dobley district commissioner Ali Hussein Nur said six people were killed. A local politician, who had visited the scene and who asked not to be named, said only three were wounded.

A militant Islamist organisation, the Mujahideen Youth Group, said in a posting on a Web site often used by al Qaeda and its supporters that the U.S. attack had "failed to hit leaders" of the group.

A senior U.S. official said it was too early to know what damage had been inflicted, or whether there were any casualties.

The Somali politician said Sheikh Hassan Turki, a local militant cleric, and other leaders of a militant Islamist group from Mogadishu were meeting. The Islamists have been waging an insurgency against Somali government forces.


"The town is very tense. People have started fleeing because they fear there might be more attacks," he said.

A man in Kismayu, who said the house that was hit belonged to him, told Reuters his daughter was among the wounded and four of his cows had also been killed in the attack.

"We do not know whether the missiles were fired by the American AC-130 plane which is still flying over the city. All we know is they dropped from the sky," Mohamed Nurie Salad said.

He said he was returning to Dobley to assess the damage, which he had been told about over the telephone.

On Jan. 8, 2007, a U.S. AC-130 gunship struck Islamists in southern Somalia in Washington's first overt military action there since pulling out of a U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission in 1994 after the "Black Hawk Down" incident.

That attack, and another with the same kind of aeroplane shortly thereafter, struck Islamists fleeing from Ethiopian and Somali troops who cornered them in southern Somalia during a two-week war to rout the militant movement.

On June 21, a U.S. Navy ship fired missiles at Islamist fighters and foreign jihadists hiding in the mountains in the northern Puntland region.

The United States accuses Somali Islamist insurgents of harbouring al Qaeda fugitives responsible for planning and executing the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

In Mogadishu, several civilians were killed by soldiers patrolling the Somali capital's main market on Monday.

"Four men were killed by stray bullets," Ali Mohamed, head of the Bakara market traders' committee, told Reuters. Witness Abdi Nur said he only saw two civilians dead.

In the southern town of Bur Hakaba, at least five people including the local police chief died in clashes between suspected Islamists and government forces, a resident said.