MOGADISHU (AFP) — A US air strike in Somalia killed at least 12 people on Thursday, including a man said to be Al-Qaeda's military leader in the war-torn country, Ethiopian officials and rebels said.
The militant leader was named as Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro who trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and had been linked to the deaths of foreign aid workers in Somalia. He had been a target of a US air strike in 2007.
In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed an attack on an Al-Qaeda military leader in Somalia but declined to identify him and would not initially say whether the mission had been successful.
"Until we have an opportunity to analyze the strike, we don't want to reveal any information," spokesman for the Defense Department's Central Command Lieutenant Joe Holstead told AFP.
The Ethiopian government, a key US ally in Africa and the main supporter of Somalia's embattled government, said the United States staged the raid on a house in Dhusamareb, in the Galgudud region of central Somalia.
"This attack was purely performed by the Americans," Ethiopia's Information Minister Berhane Hailu told AFP in Addis Ababa. "It will further weaken the cells of Al-Qaeda in Somalia. It has some value for peace and stability in Somalia."
A war plane dropped three large bombs on the house at about 2:00 am (2300 GMT Wednesday), according to resident Jamal Mohamoud.
"We are still digging debris at the house that was totally demolished. We have so far recovered 10 bodies, including that of Ayro. Three people who were injured have been taken to hospital," Abshir Moalim Ali, an elder in Dhusamareb told AFP.
"Two more people who were admitted in a hospital died of injuries. They were civilians seriously wounded in a nearby house," another elder Hussein Haji Mohamed said later Thursday.
Ayro was military leader of the Shabab, a group on the US government's terrorist list. Another senior Islamist was among the dead, the militant group said.
Shabab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said Ayro and another senior Islamist, Sheikh Muhyadin Omar, were among the dead from the air strike.
"A US warplane bombed us in Dhusamareb district and there were casualties. This was an unprovoked attack," said Robow, whose group is a radical wing of the Islamist movement which is fighting the Somalia's Ethiopian-backed transitional government.
Ayro and Omar are "the most important Shabab members who were victims of this foreign aggression. They passed away as they were fighting the liberation of their land," the spokesman added.
In March last year, the Somali government said Al-Qaeda had named Aryo as its leader in the country. In his early 30s, he carried out insurgency training in Afghanistan in the 1990s and ran a secret militia training centre.
The US government added Shabab to its list of terrorist organisations in March, saying its senior leaders were believed to have trained and fought with Osama bin Laden's network in Afghanistan.
The attack was the fourth of its kind staged by the United States inside Somalia since the start of 2007.
-- In March, the US military fired at least one cruise missile into southern Somalia near the Kenyan border, targeting Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives believed hiding there.
-- In June last year, a US Navy destroyer shelled suspected Al-Qaeda targets in mountainous and remote areas in northeastern Somalia where local Islamist militants are also believed to have bases.
-- In January 2007, a US helicopter gunship hit insurgent positions in southern Somalia to help Somali government forces.
US officials said the previous attacks were aimed at "high-value" Al-Qaeda militants.
Among them were Comoros islander Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Sudanese Abu Talha al-Sudani, blamed for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan coastal hotel that killed 15 people.
Officials said Ayro survived the January 2007 US airstrike in southern Somalia but left behind blood-stained identification documents.
Ayro is said to have overseen the desecration of an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, exhuming and throwing into the sea the remains of hundreds of corpses. He reportedly ordered a makeshift mosque erected there.
In addition to leading operations against Somali and Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers, Ayro has also been linked to the murders of foreign aid workers in Somalia.
Since the Islamists were ousted from Mogadishu in early 2007, they have carried out attacks against government officials, Ethiopian forces backing the Somali government and African Union peacekeepers.
Western intelligence has accused Somali Islamists of having links to Al-Qaeda, which is believed to want to use war-shattered Somalia as a haven.
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