US forces have carried out air strikes against the leader of Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels, with casualties reported but uncertainty hanging over the fate of the main target, officials said Tuesday.
The Pentagon confirmed an “operation” was carried out on Monday against the hardline militia, and that it was “assessing the results”.
“The Americans carried out a major air strike targeting a gathering by senior Al-Shebab officials, including their leader Abu-Zubayr,” said Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor for southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region.
Abu-Zubayr is the often used name for Shebab supreme commander Ahmed Abdi Godane, listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives.
Washington has carried out a series of drone missile strikes in the past, including attacks reportedly targeting Godane.
“We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
The Shebab said they did not want to comment on possible casualties or the fate of Godane.
The air strike comes days after African Union troops and government forces launched “Operation Indian Ocean”, a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from the Islamist rebels and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue — multi-million dollar exports of charcoal.
Shebab fighters have largely fled in the face of the advance, and Nur said the air strike was targeting Shebab commanders as they gathered for a meeting.
“They were meeting to discuss about the current offensive in the region,” Nur said. “There were casualties inflicted on the militants, but we don’t have details so far.”
Nur said the strike hit a Shebab hideout used as a training camp for suicide bombers, in remote villages of the Lower Shabelle region, south of the capital Mogadishu — the seat of Somalia’s internationally-backed but fragile government.
– $7 million reward –
On Saturday the AU mission in Somalia, AMISOM, said it had captured the town of Bulomarer, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) southwest of Mogadishu.
The town was the scene of an attempted raid by French commandos in January 2013 to free an intelligence agent being held hostage. The bid failed and resulted in the death of two members of the French special forces as well as the hostage.
AMISOM and Somali government troops were also seen on roads towards Barawe, the last major port held by the hardline gunmen on Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast.
US special forces in October launched an attack on a house in Barawe targeting a top Shebab commander, but were fought off with several US Navy SEALS believed to have been wounded.
Godane, 37, who was reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, took over the leadership of the Shebab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile strike.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognised Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden’s death show the late Saudi Islamist leader had lower regard for the Somali’s abilities.
He is included in a third category of men on whom information warrants a $7-million reward, alongside Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader, but under the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, for whom a tip is worth up to $10 million, and Zawahiri, who fetches $25 million.
The Shebab are fighting to topple Somalia’s internationally-backed government, and regularly launch attacks against state targets, as well as in neighbouring countries that contribute to the AU force.
On Sunday, the Shebab carried out a car bomb and gun attack against an intelligence headquarters in the capital Mogadishu. At least seven Shebab fighters and five others were killed.
The fighting comes as the United Nations and aid workers warn that large areas of Somalia are struggling with dire hunger and drought, three years after famine killed more than a quarter of a million people. UN assessment reports released Tuesday said over a million people are struggling in conditions close to famine.