MOGADISHU, Somalia – U.S. ships patrolling off the coast of Somalia have picked up a number of people suspected of having ties to wanted Al Qaeda terrorists who are being interrogated for any clues to the whereabouts of the group's key leaders and a second U.S. airstrike against a terror target was aborted at the last minute, senior military officials said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, military intelligence officials stopped short of saying whether any victims from the U.S. C-130 airstrike attack carried out against Al Qaeda targets near the Kenyan border on Sunday had positively been identified, maintaining that battlefield assessment is still being conducted.
Earlier, a Somali official said that he saw a U.S. intelligence report that claimed that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a key Al Qaeda operative wanted in connection with the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, had been killed in the U.S. attack.
U.S. officials said again Wednesday that only one U.S. airstrike had been carried out in Somalia in what began as a covert operation conducted by Special Operations Forces. Eight "bad guys" were said to have been killed and up to five others injured in the attack, according to one official.
The U.S. military is in "pursue, track, capture, and kill mode" for suspected Al Qaeda members in Somalia, the official said, adding that the operation is ongoing.
On Wednesday, a C-130 gunship went out to conduct a second airstrike in the past 24 hours, but pulled back from attacking after losing track of the target, an official at the Pentagon said.
All of the above officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of the information.
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Witnesses reported renewed U.S. airstrikes aimed at Islamic militant targets Wednesday and a Somali official said at least three U.S. airstrikes have been launched since Sunday.
The exact location of the confirmed U.S. attack was not officially released by Washington, but witnesses said a C-130 was involved in an airstrike on a suspected Al Qaeda training camp on Ras Kamboni, on the Somali coast near the Kenyan border.
For days, U.S. warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, have been positioned in the Indian Ocean to interdict vessels sailing from Somalia to make sure no terror suspects flee the country by sea. One of those warships, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland, is being used to detain anyone wanted for questioning.
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The senior military official said U.S. Navy personnel from some of the four warships enforcing a blockade off the Somali coast boarded vessels and detained less than a dozen people, including some who could be relatives of wanted Al Qaeda suspects or otherwise associated with the terror group.
The Somali president's chief of staff Abdirizak Hassan said Fazul, who carried a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 225 people, was listed dead in a U.S. intelligence report.
"I have received a report from the American side chronicling the targets and list of damage," he said. "One of the items they were claiming was that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is dead."
Somalia's deputy prime minister said Wednesday that American troops were needed on the ground to root extremists from his troubled country, and he expected the troops soon.
In Washington, two senior Pentagon officials said they had heard of no plans to put any sizable contingent of Americans in Somalia. Another official said it was unlikely the U.S. would carry out such an operation without "eyes on the ground."
A senior Somali government official also said a small U.S. team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and government forces on the ground. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The Associated Press, Nick Simeone and Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.