MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – The U.S. launched an airstrike in Somalia targeting terror suspects March 3 as an Islamic group with links to al-Qaida appeared to be gathering momentum again in this lawless African nation.
Residents and police in the southern town of Dobley said a home was destroyed and at least eight people, including four children, were seriously injured. The U.S. has carried out strikes in Somalia in the past year amid fears the country could become a haven for terrorists.
“As we have repeatedly said, we will continue to pursue terrorist activities and their operations wherever we may find them,” U.S. military spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters, “the action was to go after al-Qaida and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists,” suggesting that it may have been designed to hit more than one person. Like Whitman, Johndroe declined to provide any details.
The March 3 attack “was a deliberate, precise strike against a known terrorist and his associates,” another U.S. military official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record. He said the targets were believed staying in a building known to be used regularly by terrorist suspects.
Remnants of a radical Islamic force that ruled much of southern Somalia in 2006 took over Dobley last week, led by senior Islamic official Hassan Turki. Turki, who is rarely seen in public, is on U.S. and U.N. lists of suspected terrorists for having alleged ties to al-Qaida.
Dobley residents said the sound of the airstrike shook them awake before dawn March 3.
“When we came out we found our neighbor’s house completely obliterated as if no house existed here,” Fatuma Abdullahi, a resident of Dobley, some four miles (six kilometers) from the Kenya border, told The Associated Press. “We are taking shelter under trees. Three planes were flying over our heads.”
In early 2007, Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies drove the Islamic group, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, from power. The group had taken over much of southern Somalia – including the capital, Mogadishu. But the Islamic council appears to be re-emerging.
On March 3, fighters linked to the council overran Bur Haqaba, a strategic hilltop town about 37 miles from the provincial capital of Baidoa in southern Somalia. The group released prisoners from jail and killed a police chief there before retreating, witnesses said.
Last month, Islamic fighters briefly took over Dinsor in southern Somalia, killing nine government soldiers, police said.
The United States has repeatedly accused the Islamic group of harboring international terrorists linked to al-Qaida and allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. America is concerned that Somalia could be a breeding ground for terror, particularly after the Islamic group gained power briefly last year and Osama bin Laden declared his support for them.
The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with Ethiopian forces that drove the Islamic forces into hiding. In January, U.S. warplanes carried out at least two airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members, Pentagon officials have said.
The U.S. military also patrols Somalia's 1,880-mile (3,025-kilometer) coast, which is the longest in Africa, near key shipping routes connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, and scene of rampant piracy.
The U.S. has avoided sustained military action 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 a battle, chronicled in the book and movie Black Hawk Down, that killed 18 U.S. soldiers.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. The current government was formed in 2004, but has struggled to assert any real control.
AP writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.