MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A U.S. warplane hunting al Qaeda suspects killed many people in south Somalia as other air strikes also hit the remote region where fugitive Islamist fighters are hiding, officials said on Tuesday.
In the first known direct U.S. military intervention in Somalia since a failed peacekeeping mission that ended in 1994, an AC-130 plane rained gunfire on the desolate village of Hayo late on Monday, a senior government official said.
"There are so many dead bodies and animals in the village," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
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 Islamist troops fleeing Ethiopian and Somali forces.
It was not clear if he was killed in the attack, which the Pentagon declined to confirm or deny.
Somalia's defence and information ministers told Reuters other airstrikes took place south of Hayo, near Ras Kamboni and Badmadow at Somalia's southernmost tip near the Kenyan border.
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.
"The Islamists are hiding in the thick jungle and it's only airstrikes that eliminate them from there. The strikes have been going on and are will continue until no terrorist survives," Information Minister Ali Ahmed Jama "Jangali" told Reuters.
"Many have been killed but there are some who are still hiding there."
Hundreds of Islamists have sought refuge in southern Somalia's jungle and bush, where Ethiopian and Somali troops have chased them in a swift offensive that ran them out of their strongholds including Mogadishu before the New Year.
There was no independent confirmation of the locations of the attacks, nor casualty figures.
'RIGHT TO ACTION'
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf told reporters in Mogadishu, where he went on Monday for the first time since his 2004 election, that he could not confirm the strikes, but said the United States should hunt al Qaeda wherever they are.
"They have a right to take action. We are fighting terrorists, whether they are international terrorists or Somalis. We are not fighting Islam. Somalis are 100 percent Muslim," Yusuf said.
The presence of Ethiopians in Somalia has uncorked an ancient enmity between the Horn of Africa neighbours, and a handful of protests and small attacks have broken out in the past few days 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.
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, confirmed it had moved the aircraft carrier Eisenhower to the Somali coast -- Africa's longest -- to beef up a naval cordon it had already put there to cut off any Islamist escape via the Indian Ocean.
U.S., Ethiopian and Kenyan intelligence officials say some Islamists have hidden a handful of al Qaeda members, including suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 hotel bombing on the Kenyan coast.
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.
The Washington Post, quoting unnamed military sources, said al-Sudani, who is married to a Somali and been in and out of the country since 1993, was a target of at least one raid.
Ethiopian and Somali troops have chased al-Sudani since he led Islamist fighters near Buur Hakaba, close to the government base of Baidoa, in the early days of a war which began around Christmas, Somali government officials told Reuters.
Though many have suspected an American hand in the Somali conflict which ended the six-month Islamist rule of southern Somalia, the AC-130 attack is the first solid evidence of it and in line with previous U.S. actions against al Qaeda members.
An unmanned Predator drone flown from the U.S. Horn of Africa counter-terrorism base in Djibouti killed an al Qaeda suspect in Yemen in 2002, and the AC-130 was almost certainly flown from there by the elite Special Operations Command.
The AC-130 is a propeller-driven converted cargo plane with sophisticated sensors that allow it to pinpoint targets with heavy automatic cannon fire.
Mindful of a disastrous intervention in the early 1990s, related in the book and film "Black Hawk Down", Washington had until Monday not overtly involved its forces in the war.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain, and Bryson Hull in Nairobi)