(CBS/AP) Attack helicopters strafed suspected al Qaeda fighters in southern Somalia on Tuesday, witnesses said, following two days of air strikes by U.S. forces — the first U.S. offensives in the African country since 18 American soldiers were killed here in 1993.
In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said American forces killed five to 10 people in an attack on one target in southern Somalia believed to be associated with al Qaeda. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation’s sensitivity, said a small number of others present, perhaps four or five, were wounded.
The U.S. military is ready to carry out more strikes, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports. But whether it does will depend on getting good intelligence on the whereabouts of any al Qaeda operatives left alive.
A Somali lawmaker said 31 civilians, including a newlywed couple, died in Tuesday’s assault by two helicopters near Afmadow, a town in a forested area close to the Kenyan border. The report could not be independently verified.
A Somali Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but witnesses told The Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment on the helicopter strike.
The U.S. is hunting down Islamic extremists, said the Somali defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
“These guys deserve to be dead,” said CBS News consultant Michael Schueur, a former CIA officer. “I hope we did get them, but in the strategic sense of ‘are we closer to winning this war?’ I think that’s probably not the case.”
On Monday, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship conducted an initial strike – part of a wider air offensive against suspected members of al Qaeda – Martin first reported.
The Pentagon confirmed Monday’s strike targeting al Qaeda operatives late on Tuesday, but did not give any information on who was actually killed.
The targets included the senior al Qaeda leader in East Africa and an al Qaeda operative wanted for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa, Martin reported. Those terror attacks killed more than 200 people.
Earlier, Somalia’s president said that the U.S. was pursuing suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and that the effort has his support.
Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies were attacked in the capital late Tuesday by gunmen riding in two pickup trucks who fired two rocket propelled grenades, witnesses said.
The rocket attack was followed by several minutes of rifle fire. One Somali soldier was killed and two other soldiers and a bystander were wounded, said minibus driver Harun Ahmed, who took the injured to a hospital.
Col. Shino Moalin Nur, a Somali military commander, told the AP by telephone late Tuesday that at least one U.S. AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al Qaeda training camp Sunday on a remote island at the southern tip of Somalia next to Kenya.
Somali officials said they had reports of many deaths.
“Nobody can exactly explain what is going on inside these forested areas,” the Somali commander said. “However, we are receiving reports that most of the Islamist fighters have died and the rest would be captured soon.”
In Washington on Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman spoke of one strike in southern Somalia, but would not confirm any of the details or say whether any al Qaeda militants were killed.
The assault was based on intelligence “that led us to believe we had principal al Qaeda leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them,” Whitman said.