Whose helicopter is it? Report of attack on Somali coast town leaves unanswered questions

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — U.S. military officials and the European Union Naval Force denied on Monday that one of their helicopters was involved in an exchange of fire reported by residents of a coastal town in Somalia.

Residents of the coastal town of Merca, about 50 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Mogadishu, said a military helicopter flew over the town on Sunday and that militants fired on it. Some residents said the helicopter fired back but caused no major damage.

But no one seems to know who the helicopter belongs to.

The U.S. military's Special Operations Command Africa and its conventional counterpart, U.S. Africa Command, said they had no involvement, as did a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, an anti-piracy unit that has military forces off the east coast of Somalia. African Union troops also said they weren't behind the exchange.

"I can tell you we don't have any troops in that vicinity at all. We are surprised as you to be honest," said Maj. Bryan Purtell, the spokesman for the Germany-based Special Operations Command Africa.

The EU NavFor spokesman, Lt. Col. Per Klingvall, said: "We're not operating on the Somali coast. We're just operating out on the waters."

Merca resident Dahi Aden said that a military helicopter flew over the coastal town and that militants from al-Shabab — the country's most powerful insurgent group — fired on the aircraft. Aden said it did not respond.

However, a second resident, Abdullahi Qalirow, said the helicopter fired back.

"Once the insurgents fired at the helicopters, they immediately responded with machine gun fire," said Qalirow, who said their were at least two helicopters, though others reported only one. "After the incident, al-Shabab militants sealed off the entire area and prevented civilians from moving around, creating a rumor that something hit there."

Somali Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman declined to immediately comment, and the spokesman for the 7,100 African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu said the AU force was not responsible.

"You made me have the laugh of the year," said Maj. Barigye Bahoku. "There is no way the African Union force can be involved in such a strike. We don't have helicopters — any air capacity whatsoever."

Last September U.S. commandos on helicopters strafed a convoy carrying top al-Qaida fugitive Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in rural southern Somalia, rappelled to the ground, collected his body and another corpse and took off. Nabhan was wanted for the 2002 car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.

Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government in almost 20 years. Al-Shabab — a militant group with ties to al-Qaida — has grown in power in recent years and now controls much of the southern part of the country, where Merca is located.

Meanwhile, the EU Naval Force said Monday that pirates abandoned a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship late Sunday with 12 Ukrainian sailors onboard. The Panama-flagged MV Lugela was reported on Saturday as having been hijacked 900 nautical miles east of Somalia. The crew is reported to be safe.

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Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, and Anna Melnichuk in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.