MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Many people were killed in Somalia in a U.S. air strike targeting al Qaeda suspects among fleeing Islamist fighters, Somali officials said on Tuesday.
The U.S. strike, part of a wide offensive also involving Ethiopian planes, was apparently aimed at an al Qaeda cell said to include suspects in bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa and a hotel on the Kenyan coast.
A Somali elder or traditional leader reported a second U.S. air attack on Tuesday that killed up to 27 people but that could not be confirmed by other sources.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed one air attack on Sunday against the top al Qaeda leadership in east Africa. He would not comment on whether the raid was successful but said it was based on "credible intelligence".
Spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to state categorically whether the U.S. military had mounted other air strikes but indicated he had mentioned all U.S. operations.
The attack was Washington's first overt military intervention in Somalia since a disastrous peacekeeping mission that ended in 1994.
A senior Somali official said an AC-130 plane, a formidable weapon armed with rapid-firing cannons, rained gunfire on the remote village of Hayo but said the attack was late on Monday.
"There are so many dead bodies and animals in the village," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
The Somali elder, from the southern town of Afmadow, said a second strike killed between 22 and 27 people in the same area.
"U.S. planes struck at Bankajirow this morning between 10 a.m. and noon (0700-0900 GMT)," the elder, who did not want to be identified, said by telephone.
A U.S. official, who declined to be named, suggested any air operations on Tuesday were not carried out by American forces.
Both Hayo and Bankajirow are near the Kenyan border, where hundreds of Islamists fled after their defeat by Ethiopian and transitional government forces in a lightning war in late December that ended six months of Islamic rule.
Somalia's defence and information ministers told Reuters air strikes had taken place south of Hayo, near Ras Kamboni and Badmadow at Somalia's southernmost tip.
Neither would say if the United States or Ethiopia, which has jets and helicopters in the area, carried them out, or precisely when they occurred.
U.S. intelligence believes Abu Talha al-Sudani, named in grand jury testimony against Osama bin Laden as a Sudanese explosives expert, is al Qaeda's east African boss and is hiding among the fleeing Islamist troops.
Before Ethiopian intervention, the Islamists seemed set to drive the weak interim government out of its only base in the small southern town of Baidoa.
In another sign of a more muscular U.S. action, the U.S. Navy said it had moved the aircraft carrier Eisenhower to the Somali coast to beef up a naval cordon to cut off any Islamist escape via the Indian Ocean. Kenya has sealed its border.
U.S., Ethiopian and Kenyan intelligence officials say the Islamists hid a handful of al Qaeda members, including suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya.
Besides al-Sudani, Washington has named Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who has a $5 million reward for his capture, and Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan among those in Somalia.
As news of the air attacks emerged, rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a building in Mogadishu housing Ethiopian and Somali government troops, where at least one person died in an attack over the weekend.
A Reuters reporter heard the RPGs followed by a 10 minute exchange of fire with automatic weapons. A car was burning outside the compound. A government source said one Somali soldier was killed and one wounded in the firefight.
The European Union, which has frequently differed with Washington over Somalia, criticised the U.S. air raid.
"Any incident of this kind is not helpful in the long term," a spokesman for the European Commission said, adding that only a political solution would bring peace.
Somali Information Minister Ali Ahmed Jama "Jangali" said: "The Islamists are hiding in the thick jungle and it's only air strikes that eliminate them from there. The strikes ... will continue until no terrorist survives."
The U.S. embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday renewed a warning to Americans in the region of the danger of terrorist attacks, saying defeat in the Somalia war could push al-Qaeda agents into other parts of the region.
The presence of Ethiopians in Somalia has uncorked an ancient enmity between the neighbours, and a handful of protests and small attacks have broken out in Mogadishu.
Ethiopian troops are helping the government tame the gun-filled country while an African peacekeeping force is assembled. It is the 14th attempt to impose order since the 1991 ouster of the last national president sparked anarchy.
After the disastrous 1992-94 U.S. mission, chronicled in the film "Black Hawk Down," Washington had kept clear of intervention in Somalia for a decade. But the CIA was widely reported to have been bankrolling warlords who controlled Mogadishu before being ousted by the Islamists last June.
(Additional reporting by Sahal Abdulle; Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain, David Morgan in Washington and Bryson Hull in Nairobi)