MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Many people died in a U.S. air strike on a southern Somali village occupied by Islamists believed to be sheltering at least one al Qaeda suspect, a Somali government source said on Tuesday.
"I understand there are so many dead bodies and animals in the village," the senior source told Reuters.
In the first known direct U.S. intervention in the Somali war that began over Christmas, an AC-130 plane rained gunfire down on the southern village of Hayo late on Monday.
"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.
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 assault.
Used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the AC-130 is a big, propeller-driven cargo plane fitted with electronic sensors that allow it to pinpoint targets with heavy automatic cannon fire.
It would almost certainly have been flown by the elite Special Operations Command from the U.S. Horn of Africa counter-terrorism base in Djibouti.
U.S., Ethiopian and Kenyan intelligence officials say some Islamists provided shelter to a handful of al Qaeda members, and that suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania used Somalia as a base.
Washington has named the three main suspects as Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan.
The Islamists deny any al Qaeda links, saying this charge is an invention to justify intervention in Somalia.
DISASTROUS PAST INTERVENTION
Born out of sharia courts, the Islamists took Mogadishu and much of the south in June, and threatened just weeks ago to overrun the interim government in its provincial base of Baidoa.
But the intervention of Ethiopian forces pushed them back from the Baidoa area, then forced them to flee Mogadishu and their final stronghold in the southern port Kismayu.
Hundreds of Islamist fighters are now hiding in the hills and bushland of south Somalia, pursued by Ethiopian and Somali forces, while Kenya's military is trying to seal its lengthy border to prevent them escaping.
Diplomats say Washington provided tacit blessing for Addis Ababa to enter Somalia and confront the Islamists, and also gave surveillance and intelligence help during the fighting.
Mindful of a disastrous intervention in the early 1990s -- related in the film "Black Hawk Down" -- Washington had until Monday not overtly involved its forces in the war.
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.
They "did not come to occupy Somalia and they will leave Somali territories as soon as regional and international forces start to deploy", the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Yusuf as saying by telephone from Mogadishu.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said he 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.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has said foreign peacekeepers in Somalia would be part of a Western anti-Muslim "crusade" and a legitimate target for jihadists.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington)