Two US airstrikes in Somalia killed large numbers of Islamic extremists, government officials and witnesses said today. The targets were suspects in the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998.
The attacks, by an AC-130 gunship, came after the terror suspects were spotted hiding on a remote island on the southern tip of Somalia, close to the Kenyan border, Somali officials said. The island and a site 155 miles north were hit.
One US attack took place yesterday afternoon on Badmadow island. The area is known as Ras Kamboni and is suspected to be a terror training base. Ethiopian and Somali troops had over the last days cornered the main Islamic force in Ras Kamboni, with US warships patrolling off shore and the Kenyan military guarding the border to watch for fleeing militants.
Witnesses said at least four civilians were killed in another attack 30 miles east of Afmadow town, including a small boy. The claims could not be independently verified.
"My four-year-old boy was killed in the strike," Mohamed Mahmud Burale told the AP by telephone. "We also heard 14 massive explosions."
The AC-130, a four engine turboprop-driven aircraft, is armed with 40 mm cannon that fire 120 rounds per minute and a 105 mm cannon, normally a field artillery weapon. The plane's latest version, the AC-130U, known as " Spooky," also carries Gatling gun-type 20 mm cannon. The gunships were designed primarily for battlefield use to place saturated fire on massed troops.
"We don't know how many people were killed in the attack but we understand there were a lot of casualties," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said. "Most were Islamic fighters."
It was the first overt military action by the US in Somalia since the 1990s and the legacy of a botched intervention - known as "Black Hawk Down" - that left 18 US servicemen dead. The US military said today it had sent an aircraft carrier to join three other US warships conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast.
US warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia invaded on December 24 in support of the government and have begun flying intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia.
President Abdullahi Yusuf told journalists in the capital, Mogadishu, that the US "has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania." Yesterday, Yusuf had entered the restive capital for the first time since his election.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aideed told The Associated Press the US had "our full support for the attacks."
But others in the capital said the attacks would only increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country.
"US involvement in the fighting in our country is completely wrong," said Sahro Ahmed, a 37-year-old mother of five.
Already, many people in predominantly Muslim Somalia had resented the presence of troops from neighbouring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population and has fought two brutal wars with Somalia, most recently in 1977.
Ethiopian forces had invaded Somalia to prevent an Islamic movement from ousting the weak, internationally recognised government from its lone stronghold in the west of the country. The US and Ethiopia both accuse the Islamic group of harbouring extremists, among them al-Qaida suspects.
US officials said after the September 11 attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and al-Qaida members are believed to have visited it. The alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, escaped to Ras Kamboni, according to testimony from one of the convicted bombers.
Mohammed is believed to be the leader of the al-Qaida East Africa cell.
Leaders of the Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war in Somalia, and al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on the Ethiopian troops.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.