MOGADISHU, Somalia – The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that at least one U.S. airstrike had been carried out in Somalia targeting Al Qaeda suspects, as a Somali official reported a new attack carried out by U.S. helicopter gunships.
U.S. military spokesman Bryan Whitman said a strike carried out by a C-130 gunship Sunday in the town of Afmadow targeted senior Al Qaeda leadership operating in southern Somalia.
"We are going to continue to pursue those people we believe are responsible for the embassy bombings," Whitman said, referring to the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
White House also acknowledged that an attack took place, but no details were provided.
"We can confirm that there was a military operation overnight on Sunday in Somalia," said White House spokesman Tony Snow, referring other questions on the situation to the Defense Department.
Earlier, one U.S. official said 'at least a couple' of Al Qaeda suspects were taken out in an airstrike conducted by Special Operations forces in the southern part of the country, while another said the top Al Qaeda leader in East Africa may have been among those killed. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation's sensitivity.
Another intelligence official also speaking on condition of anonymity later said five to 10 people believed to be associated with the Al Qaeda network were killed in the attack. A small number of others present at the targeted area, perhaps four or five, were wounded.
Washington has named Abu Talha al-Sudani as the leader of Al Qaeda in East Africa who may be in hiding in Somalia along with Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is wanted in connection with the embassy bombings, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who is wanted in connection with an attack on a Kenya resort in 2002.
Tuesday's helicopter attack also took place near Afmadow, 220 miles southwest of the capital Mogadishu. A Somali Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but the local witnesses told The Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft.
Witnesses said 31 civilians, including a newly wed couple, were killed by the two helicopters Tuesday. The claim could not be independently verified.
Initial reports based on eyewitnesses and Somali officials were that airstrikes were carried out on two locations on Monday — one near Afmadow, and one 155 miles away on Badamow Island.
The attack on Badmadow Island, part of a group of six rocky islands near the Kenyan border known as Ras Kamboni that is suspected of housing a terrorist training base, also reportedly involved a C-130 gunship.
It appeared the Pentagon was referring to the same attack near Afmadow with the time zones accounting for the difference in dates.
Witnesses said at least four civilians, including a small boy, were killed in that attack. The claims could not be independently verified.
"My 4-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, which have long ranges and take off from land, 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."
The attack acknowledged by the Pentagon was the first overt military action by the U.S. in Somalia since it led a U.N. force in the 1990s that intervened in Somalia in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including the "Black Hawk Down" battle that left 18 U.S. servicemen dead.
In a further escalation of U.S. involvement, the U.S. military said Tuesday that the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had arrived off the coast to join three other U.S. warships — two guided-missile cruisers and an amphibious landing ship — conducting anti-terror operations.
U.S. warships have been seeking to capture Al Qaeda members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia intervened Dec. 24 in support of the government, which had been struggling to asset its authority in the face of the Islamic movement.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi reissued a terror warning Tuesday to Americans living in or visiting the Horn of Africa.
President Abdullahi Yusuf told journalists in Mogadishu that the U.S. "has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania." Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aideed told The Associated Press the U.S. 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. Already, many in predominantly Muslim Somalia had resented the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population and has fought two brutal wars with Somalia, most recently in 1977.
Ethiopia forces had invaded to counter an Islamic movement that had challenged the weak, internationally recognized government. Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes took just 10 days to drive the Islamic group from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns.
Leaders of the Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war in Somalia, and Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on the Ethiopian troops.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview published Tuesday in the French newspaper Le Monde that suspected terrorists from Canada, Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere have been among those taken prisoner or killed in the military operations in Somalia.
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.
At least 13 attempts at government have failed since then. The current government was established in 2004 with U.N. backing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.