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 the 1998 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".
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the air strike was believed to have killed one of three al Qaeda members suspected in the embassy bombings.
Washington is hoping to find a handful of al Qaeda members, including Abu Talha al-Sudani, named in grand jury testimony against Osama bin Laden as a Sudanese explosives expert and whom U.S. intelligence believes is al Qaeda's east African boss.
It believes al-Sudani, Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan are among Islamists who fled towards the Kenyan border after Ethiopia's military helped the interim Somali government oust them from the capital last month.
"We don't know which one is the one at the moment," the intelligence official said.
The attack was Washington's first overt military intervention in Somalia since a disastrous peacekeeping mission that ended in 1994, chronicled in the film "Black Hawk Down".
Earlier Pentagon 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.
"MANY DEAD BODIES"
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.
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.
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.
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 a weekend attack.
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.
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 renewed a warning to Americans in the region of the danger of terrorist attacks, saying defeat 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 assert its authority in 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.
(Additional reporting by Sahal Abdulle; Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain, David Morgan in Washington and Bryson Hull in Nairobi)