MOGADISHU, Somalia – None of three top suspected terrorists in Somalia was killed in a U.S. airstrike this week, but Somalis with close ties to Al Qaeda were killed, a senior U.S. official in the region said Thursday.
A day earlier, a Somali official had said a U.S. intelligence report had referred to the death of one of the three senior Al Qaeda members believed responsible for bombing U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. But U.S. and Ethiopian troops in southern Somalia were still pursuing the three, the U.S. official in Kenya said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In Washington, officials had said U.S. special operations forces were in Somalia. U.S. and Somali officials said Wednesday a small American team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces on the ground. The officials provided little detail and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The U.S. forces entered Somalia with Ethiopian forces late last month when Ethiopians launched their attack against a Somali Islamic movement said to be sheltering Al Qaeda figures, one of the officials said.
U.S. officials have acknowledged launching one air strike in Somalia aimed at killing suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. But Somali officials have reported additional U.S. strikes. There was no way to independently verify which strikes were carried out by U.S. or Ethiopian forces.
Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Al Qaeda suspect Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was killed. He said he learned of the death in a U.S. intelligence report passed on to the Somali authorities. Fazul, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, has evaded capture for eight years.
Meanwhile, Somali and Ethiopian forces skirmished with Islamic militiamen in southern Somalia early Thursday, residents said by two-way radio.
The fighting came after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his forces were carrying out mop-up operations against Islamic militants in the extreme southern corner of Somalia and that he expected to withdraw his troops within a few weeks.
The remote, forested area has few residents and high frequency radio is the only reliable form of communications.
"We are hearing bombardment in Ras Kamboni. It started around 6 a.m. and the strike is now continuing," one resident said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. "We can't see planes, but we can hear heavy explosions."
Mosa Aden Hersi, who lives 15 miles from Ras Kamboni, said earlier fighting in the area had triggered a brush fire. At least 35 civilians were killed along with fighters during the battle.
"We saw the dead bodies of 17 men in military uniform under a small hill, but we do not know their identity," he said.
Ethiopia intervened to protect Somalia's internationally backed government on Dec. 24 after forces loyal to a fundamentalist group called the Council of Islamic Courts advanced on the only town the government controlled. Within 10 days the Ethiopians, joined by Somali troops, had pushed the Islamic fighters into a corner between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.
"The fighting is near and around Ras Kamboni. This is the last hideout of the terrorists. It is small unit, mopping up operations that have not yet been completed," Meles told reporters in Ethiopia on Wednesday.
A Somali human rights group said Thursday that thousands of Somalis fleeing the fighting were now stranded on the Kenyan border.
"Thousands are in a bad condition and they do not have food and water. They are stranded at the border after Kenya closed it and they cannot go back to their houses for two reasons: the ongoing air strikes and lack of transportation," said Ali Bashi, chairman of the Fanole human rights group.
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. The interim government was established in 2004.