Two U.S. airstrikes in Somalia killed large numbers of Islamic extremists, government officials and witnesses said Tuesday. The targets were suspects in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
The attacks, by an AC-130 gunship, came after the terror suspects were spotted hiding on a remote island on the southern tip of Somalia, close to the Kenyan border, Somali officials said. The island and a site 250 kilometers (155 miles) north were hit.
It was the first overt military action by the U.S. in Somalia since the 1990s and the legacy of a botched intervention _ known as "Black Hawk Down" that left 18 U.S. servicemen dead. The U.S. military said Tuesday it had sent an aircraft carrier to join three other U.S. warships conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast.
U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia invaded Dec. 24 in support of the government and have begun flying intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia.
President Abdullahi Yusuf told journalists in the capital, Mogadishu, that the U.S. "has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania." Monday, Yusuf had entered the restive capital for the first time since his election.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aideed told The Associated Press the U.S. had "our full support for the attacks."
But others in the capital said the attacks would only increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country.
"U.S. involvement in the fighting in our country is completely wrong," said Sahro Ahmed, a 37-year-old mother of five.
Already, many people in predominantly Muslim Somalia had resented the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population and has fought two brutal wars with Somalia, most recently in 1977.
Ethiopia forces had invaded Somalia to prevent an Islamic movement from ousting the weak, internationally recognized government from its lone stronghold in the west of the country. The U.S. and Ethiopia both accuse the Islamic group of harboring extremists, among them al-Qaida suspects.
Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes took just 10 days to drive the Islamic group from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns.
President Yusuf said the leaders of the Islamic movement "would not be forgiven" and that talks between the two rival sides were not an option.
One U.S. attack took place on Monday afternoon on Badmadow island. The area is known as Ras Kamboni and is suspected to be a terror training base. Ethiopian and Somali troops had over the last days cornered the main Islamic force in Ras Kamboni, with U.S. warships patrolling off shore and the Kenyan military guarding the border to watch for fleeing militants.
Witnesses said at least four civilians were killed in another attack 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Afmadow town, including a small boy. The claims could not be independently verified.
"My 4-year-old boy was killed in the strike," Mohamed Mahmud Burale told the AP by telephone. "We also heard 14 massive explosions."
The AC-130, a four engine turboprop-driven aircraft, is armed with 40 mm cannon that fire 120 rounds per minute and a 105 mm cannon, normally a field artillery weapon. The plane's latest version, the AC-130U, known as "Spooky," also carries Gatling gun-type 20 mm cannon. The gunships were designed primarily for battlefield use to place saturated fire on massed troops.
"We don't know how many people were killed in the attack but we understand there were a lot of casualties," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said. "Most were Islamic fighters."
U.S. officials said after the Sept. 11 attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and al-Qaida members are believed to have visited it. The alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, escaped to Ras Kamboni, according to testimony from one of the convicted bombers.
Mohammed is believed to be the leader of the al-Qaida East Africa cell.
Leaders of the Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war in Somalia, and al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on the Ethiopian troops.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.
At least 13 attempts at government have failed since then. The current government was established in 2004 with U.N. backing.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday that a U.N. peacekeeping force may be needed to guarantee security and stability in Somalia. He said Ugandan forces may be the first deployed to replace Ethiopian troops, reports AP.
Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, said Sunday that the United States would use its diplomatic and financial resources to support the government. The U.S. has pledged US$40 million (Ђ31 million) in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance.
The African Union has begun planning for a peacekeeping force, and Uganda has promised at least 1,000 soldiers. Frazer has said she hopes the first troops will begin arriving in Mogadishu before the end of the month.