MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A U.S. attack plane killed many people with barrages of gunfire in a remote Somali village occupied by Islamists thought to be hiding at least one al Qaeda suspect, a Somali government source 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 southern village of Hayo near the Kenyan border late on Monday.
"I understand there are so many dead bodies and animals in the village," the senior source told Reuters.
The U.S. Navy also 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 as the Islamists sought refuge in the remote southern tip.
"They are, with other ships, making sure that terrorists are not able to use the sea as a means of transport," said Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is based in the Gulf state of Bahrain.
U.S. intelligence believes Abu Talha al-Sudani, identified in grand jury testimony against Osama bin Laden as an explosives expert from Sudan, is the leader of east Africa's al Qaeda cell and has been in and out of Somalia for over a decade.
"The Americans are saying an al Qaeda member heading operations in east Africa is among the Islamists there," the source said. He did not know the man's name or whether he died.
U.S., Ethiopian and Kenyan intelligence officials say some Islamists have provided shelter to 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 and Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan among the al Qaeda members in Somalia.
The Washington Post, quoting unnamed military sources, said al-Sudani was one target of the raid.
'PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON'
Ethiopian and Somali troops have chased al-Sudani since he was leading Islamist fighters near Buur Hakaba, close to the government base Baidoa, in the early days of a war which began around Christmas, Somali government officials told Reuters.
Hayo is in the southern tip of Somalia between Afmadow and Doble, areas where Ethiopian and Somali troops chased the Islamists' last remnants after ending their six-month rule of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in a two-week offensive.
Though many have suspected an American hand in the Somali conflict, this attack is the first solid evidence of it and is in line with previous U.S. attacks targeting 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 derived from the AC-47 gunships flown in Vietnam that were known as "Puff the Magic Dragon". It has sophisticated sensors that allow it to pinpoint targets with heavy automatic cannon fire.
The lumbering, 29 metre long plane can fire 1,800 rounds a minute from a Gatling gun and has in its arsenal a 105mm howitzer -- ordinarily a crew-fired ground artillery cannon that has to be towed by a truck.
The Islamists deny any al Qaeda links, saying the accusation has been invented to justify intervention in Somalia.
Born out of sharia courts, the Islamists took Mogadishu and much of the south in June and threatened just weeks ago to overrun Baidoa, then the only town the government controlled.
Ethiopian troops with armour and air power, along with government forces, quickly pushed the Islamists from Baidoa, forced them out of their stronghold, Mogadishu, and caused them to scatter to Somalia's desolate southern edges.
Hundreds of Islamist fighters are now hiding in the bushland there, while Kenya's military is trying to seal its lengthy border to prevent them escaping.
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.
But it did receive a setback when CIA was found in April to have paid despised Mogadishu warlords to help fight the Islamists on counter-terrorism grounds, only for them to lose the city to disciplined Islamist fighters in June.
The presence of troops from traditionally Christian Ethiopia has stirred both nationalist and religious fervour in mainly Muslim Somalia, with a series of protests and small attacks on Ethiopian troops in recent days.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, who on Monday entered Mogadishu for the first time since his appointment in 2004, insisted the Ethiopians were not occupiers and would leave soon.
Ethiopia wants to withdraw his troops within a few weeks, but that may depend on the speed with which an African peacekeeping force can be mustered to replace them.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain, and Bryson Hull in Nairobi)