MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Helicopter gunships attacked suspected l-Qaida fighters in the south Tuesday after U.S. forces staged airstrikes in the first offensive in the African country since 18 American soldiers were killed there in 1993, witnesses said.
Witnesses said 31 civilians, including two newlyweds, died in the assault by two helicopters near Afmadow, a town in an area of forested hills close to the Kenyan border 220 miles southwest of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The report could not be independently verified.
A Somali Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but the local witnesses told The Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment.
On Monday, at least one U.S. AC-130 gunship attacked Islamic extremists in Hayi, 30 miles from Afmadow, and on a remote island 155 miles away believed to be an al-Qaida training camp at the southern tip of Somalia next to Kenya. Somali officials said they had reports of many deaths. The Pentagon confirmed the strike, but declined to comment on any details.
The U.S. is targeting Islamic extremists, said the Somali defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. Earlier, Somalia's president said the U.S. was hunting suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and had his support.
The Islamic extremists are believed to be sheltering suspects in the embassy bombings, and American officials also want to make sure the militants will not longer pose a threat to Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government.
The assault was based on intelligence "that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, without confirming any details. "We're going to remain committed to reducing terrorist capabilities where and when we find them."
Whitman said the U.S. conducts "all operations with the close cooperation of our allies in the region" but would not say if Somali officials gave permission for the raid. White House press secretary Tony Snow said he was not aware of any consultations with Congress before the assault.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington "has had concerns that there are terrorists, and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists, that were in Somalia." He added that "we have great interest in seeing that those individuals not be able to flee to other locations."
The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived off Somalia's coast and launched intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia, the U.S. military said. Three other U.S. warships were conducting anti-terror operations.
U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia's military invaded Dec. 24 in support of the interim Somali government and drove the Islamic militia out of the capital and toward the Kenyan border.
President Abdullahi Yusuf, head of Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government, told journalists in Mogadishu that the U.S. "has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania."
But others in the capital said the attacks would increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country, where people are already upset by the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, reissued a terror warning Tuesday to Americans living in or visiting the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopian and Somali troops at a base in Mogadishu came under attack Tuesday night when gunmen in two pickup trucks fired rocket-propelled grenades at them, witnesses said. One Somali soldier was killed and two others and a bystander injured in the attack, said minibus driver Harun Ahmed who took the wounded to hospital.
Somalia's deputy defense minister described it as a "cowardly attack."
A U.S. government official said at least one AC-130 gunship was used Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation's sensitivity.
It was the first overt military action by the U.S. in Somalia since it led a U.N. force that intervened in the 1990s in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including the "Black Hawk Down" battle that killed 18 U.S. soldiers.
Witnesses said at least four civilians were killed Monday evening in Hayi, including a small boy. The claims could not be independently verified.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said it was not known how many people were killed, "but we understand there were a lot of casualties. Most were Islamic fighters."
Another AC-130 attack occurred Monday afternoon on Badmadow island, in a group of six rocky islands known as Ras Kamboni that is suspected as a terrorist training base. Dense thicket provide excellent cover and the only road to the area is virtually impassable, locals said.
The main target on the island was thought to be Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who allegedly planned the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 225 people.
He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and the near simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.