WASHINGTON — Under cover of the Ethiopian move into Somalia, U.S. officials launched an intensive effort to capture or kill three key suspects in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa more than eight years ago that killed 224 people.
A U.S. Air Force Special Operations gunship struck a location in southern Somalia where some of the suspects were believed to be hiding, a U.S. Defense Department official said Monday.
Witnesses and Somalian government officials said there were many people killed or wounded but that they had no exact numbers. U.S. military and counter-terrorism officials said they did not know whether the strike, made within the previous 24 hours, killed any of the three fugitives.
"It's not clear what the outcome is at this point," said the counter-terrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation was classified.
Abdirahman Dinari, the Somalian government spokesman, said early reports suggested that among the dead were several leaders of the fleeing Islamic Courts Union recently driven from the capital, Mogadishu, along with "one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in East Africa." He declined to identify the leader.
The strikes targeted small villages in the vicinity of the port city of Kismayo, he said.
"The explosions shook our village," said Hussein Abdi, a resident of Afmadow. He said refugees from a nearby village told him at least six were killed.
A government official in Kismayo said soldiers captured 28 suspected Islamist fighters amid the chaos.
Dinari said leaders of the transitional government requested U.S. support and were aware of the impending strike.
U.S. officials have secretly been negotiating with Somalian clans who are believed to have sheltered the three embassy bombing suspects, hoping to obtain information about their locations. It could not be determined Monday whether the airstrike was based on information provided by the clans.
A U.S. intelligence official said it was unlikely that all three fugitives were traveling together but added that U.S. military operatives had been tracking the men for some time, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
"They were on the move, it was a thinly populated area, and this is what you got," the official said, adding that the AC-130 gunship used in the attack "is not the kind of weapon you generally deploy in downtown Mogadishu."
"This thing does some violence; it would not be the most surgical event," the official said.
The gunship was based in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. The strike was first reported by CBS News and independently confirmed by The Times.
CIA, FBI and military teams have been tracking the men, particularly their alleged leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, for years, but the fugitives have proved elusive.
U.S. officials and their African and European allies in the negotiations believe that one Somalian sub-clan in particular has been harboring Mohammed and his associates, whom the U.S. describes as the leaders of an East African Al Qaeda cell. Mohammed, a native of the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros, faces terrorism charges in the United States that could bring the death penalty if he is captured and convicted.
Intelligence gathered over the last week indicates that Mohammed and aides Abu Taha al Sudani of Sudan and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan of Kenya recently fled their haven in Mogadishu and headed for the Kenyan border as Ethiopian troops entered the capital and routed the Islamic militias that controlled it.
U.S. officials believe that influential members of the Ayr sub-clan, which they say has sheltered the three, have been in touch with the fugitives. Clan members could provide their pursuers with detailed intelligence about where the men might go and who else within their network of extremists might be hiding them, according to several U.S. counter-terrorism and diplomatic officials familiar with the negotiations.
"We are working through the clans to get at these people," one U.S. diplomatic official said. "That's a political reality in Somalia. The clan is the biggest institution, as much as there are any institutions."
But negotiations with the militant Ayr could raise questions about whether the Bush administration is bargaining with terrorists or those harboring them. The U.S. diplomatic official denied that, saying that engaging the groups, either directly or through intermediaries, was the only realistic way of gathering useful intelligence on the men and perhaps apprehending them.
Mohammed, who has a $5-million U.S. bounty on his head, was indicted in 1998 by a federal grand jury along with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and others for his alleged role in the bombings that year of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
U.S. officials also accuse the three fugitives of involvement in the 2002 bombing of a hotel in which 15 people were killed and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner, both near the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.