NAIROBI (Reuters) - A U.S. air strike in Somalia missed its main target of three top al Qaeda suspects but killed up to 10 of their allies, a senior American official said on Thursday.
A U.S. warplane attacked a village in southern Somalia on Monday in an attempt to destroy an al Qaeda cell accused of bombing two U.S. embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel in east Africa.
The strike killed eight to 10 “terrorist targets” but the United States is still pursuing the three most wanted suspects, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
U.S. ally Ethiopia, which led a swift military offensive before the New Year to oust Islamists who threatened to overrun the country’s interim government, continued air attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday in pursuit of fleeing fighters.
The first overt U.S. military action in Somalia for more than a decade had targeted Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Sudanese Abu Talha al-Sudani and Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who were believed to be hiding among the fleeing Islamists.
The U.S. official, based in east Africa, rejected Somali reports that dozens of civilians were killed. He said the dead were in a group of about 20 militants targeted in the strike.
“All I can say...is that it was a targeted strike at al Qaeda connected or affiliated people,” he said. “We and the Ethiopians and everyone else wants to interdict terrorists.”
A U.S. official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said an Ethiopian air strike may have hit one of the top three.
“It’s possible — possible — that Sudani was killed in an attack by military forces from another country. That’s the current thinking,” the official in Washington said.
An intelligence official, also in Washington, said “it is believed” that hardline Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and his Afghanistan-trained protege Aden Hashi Farah Ayro were among the al Qaeda affiliates targeted by the U.S. strike.
The Pentagon denied it had mounted any strikes after Monday, and the official in east Africa dismissed reports that U.S. special forces were in Somalia.
Kenyan authorities have arrested the wives and three children of two of the senior al Qaeda suspects, a Kenyan counter-terrorism source told Reuters on Thursday.
The suspects are wanted for 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 hotel blast on the Kenyan coast, which coincided with a failed missile attack on an Israeli airliner.
Mohammed and Nabhan’s wives and children were caught trying to cross into Kenya from Ras Kamboni, on Somalia’s southern tip, long thought by Western and east African intelligence agencies to be the site of a militant training camp.
The U.S. government is offering a $5 million reward for the capture of Mohammed, who was indicted in a federal court.
Four other male suspects, three Kenyans and one with a Rwandan passport, were caught carrying combat manuals in another attempt to cross the border. They were taken to Nairobi for questioning, the Kenyan source said.
The U.S. attack on Monday — its first overt military intervention in Somalia since a disastrous peacekeeping mission ended in 1994 — was criticised by the United Nations, many European countries and the Arab League.
In the Somali government’s interim capital Baidoa, its only home until Ethiopian and Somali troops last month defeated Islamists who had controlled southern Somalia, parliament debated a plan to impose martial law.
Pro-government MPs said they had the required votes but others said the move would be challenged in debate.
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said in late December that three months of martial law were necessary to impose order.
Underscoring the challenge, witnesses said gunmen shot at policemen guarding a hotel in Mogadishu housing government officials, in a five-minute gunfight. It was unclear if anyone was wounded in the attack, similar to others since the weekend.
Gedi’s government is the 14th attempt to establish central rule on the Horn of Africa nation since 1991, when the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre turned the country into a synonym for anarchy, guns and death.
Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Mogadishu, Celestine Achieng in Mombasa, David Morgan in Washington and Hassan Yare in Baidoa, Somalia