MOGADISHU, Somalia – At least eight foreign and an unspecified number of Somali Islamic militants — including at least one American — were killed in fighting with Somali government forces and during bombardment from a U.S. warship on a remote, mountainous northeastern area, officials said Sunday.
The fight against Islamic militants in Somalia has moved to the relatively peaceful northeast of the country. Somali government forces and their allies have previously fought the militants only in the country's south.
"Foreign fighters, Somali militants and members of the international terrorists including British nationals, Americans, Swedish, Pakistanis and Yemenis were killed in separate operations carried out by Puntland troops and U.S. navy forces," said a Sunday statement by the government of the semiautonomous northeastern region of Puntland.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asked Sunday to comment on the reported U.S. naval bombardment in northeastern Somalia, said, "That's possibly an ongoing operation." Therefore, he added, he would not comment.
Gates is in Singapore for a conference on security issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region.
The Puntland government statement said the militants were "defeated," in Friday's battles, but did not give details about either the number of casualties or their identities.
Information Minister Mohamed Abdulrahman Banga told journalists Sunday that they were waiting for more information from the security officials in the area where the fighting took place before releasing more details.
On Saturday, however, Puntland Vice President Hassan Dahir Mohamoud told The Associated Press that his government's troops killed eight foreign Islamic militants and five of them came from Britain, Eritrea, Sweden, the U.S. and Yemen.
Security forces identified them from their passports, said Mohamoud, speaking from the Puntland capital, Garowe. He said the remaining three could not be immediately identified.
Puntland Finance Minister Mohamed Ali Yusuf told journalists on Sunday that they will only release the identities of the foreigners once they completed investigations.
Mohamoud said that there were no civilian casualties because the area is uninhabited. Earlier reports had said the fighting took place in a village, and it is not clear why there was the discrepancy.
He said his government asked for the U.S. navy to help them, but he did not give details why Puntland wanted such assistance.
At least one U.S. warship late Friday pounded the area, which is near the port town of Bargal, after the government forces clashed with the militants.
Somalia's government declared victory against Islamic insurgents in the Somali capital, which is in the south, in April. But since then officials of the government and Ethiopian troops sent to prop it up have been targeted in bomb attacks.
"The insurgency appears to be spreading to other parts of Somalia, which raises a fundamental problem for the TFG (transitional federal government). In addition, the military tactics being used by the insurgents, including the use of suicide bombings, raises a very serious question about the prospects for long-term stability in Somalia and the region," said Ted Dagne, a specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the U.S. Congress.
Southern Somalia is where most of the country's 16 years of violence and chaos have taken place. Puntland has known relative peace since forming its own regional government in 1998.
A task force of coalition ships, called CTF-150, is permanently based in the northern Indian Ocean and patrols the Somali coast in hopes of intercepting international terrorists. U.S. destroyers are normally assigned to the task force and patrol in pairs.
The United States has repeatedly accused Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts of harboring international terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces that drove the Islamic forces into hiding. U.S. warplanes carried out in January at least two airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected Al Qaeda members, Pentagon officials have said.