MOGADISHU, Somalia — Helicopter gunships launched new attacks Tuesday against suspected al-Qaida members, a Somali official said, a day after American forces launched airstrikes in the first offensive in the African country since 18 U.S. troops were killed there in 1993.
Witnesses said 31 civilians, including two newlyweds, died in Tuesday’s 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.
The official, lawmaker Abdiqadir Daqane, described the helicopters as American, but local witnesses told The Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment.
Attacks in Mogadishu
Also Tuesday, unknown assailants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a building in Mogadishu housing Ethiopian and Somali troops.
A Reuters reporter heard two explosions followed by five minutes of automatic weapons-fire, and later, sporadic shots.
It was not immediately clear if anyone was hurt in the attack, which a witness from a neighboring hotel confirmed had struck the building patrolled by Somali troops.
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 and a U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that it was believed to have killed one of three al-Qaida members suspected in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"We don't know which one is the one at the moment," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I don't think we got all three. Of the senior guys, people are looking at one."
The main target of Monday's strike reportedly was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed , the alleged mastermind behind the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 225 people.
The Washington Post reported that Fazul, described by U.S. officials as the director al-Qaida operations in East Africa, was killed in the initial attack. The source was Abdirizak Hassan, chief of staff for Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who said he heard of Fazul’s death from U.S. officials.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf told journalists that the U.S. “has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies.”
But others in the capital said the attacks would only increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country. “U.S. involvement in the fighting in our country is completely wrong,” said Sahro Ahmed, a 37-year-old mother of five.
Already, many people in predominantly Muslim Somalia had resented the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population and has fought two wars with Somalia, most recently in 1977.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.
And the European Union, which has frequently differed with Washington over Somalia, criticized the U.S. air raid.
"Any incident of this kind is not helpful in the long term," a spokesman for the European Commission said, adding that only a political solution would bring peace to the anarchic nation.
U.S. naval presence grows
The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived off Somalia’s coast and launched intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia, the military said. Three other U.S. warships are conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast.
U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia invaded Dec. 24 in support of the government and drove the Islamic militia out of the capital and toward the Kenyan border.
The Islamic extremists are believed to be sheltering suspects in the embassy bombings, and the raids are designed to keep the militants from posing a new threat to the government.
It was the first U.S. offensive in the Horn of Africa country since the Americans led a U.N. force in the 1990s that intervened in Somalia 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 left 18 U.S. servicemen dead.
The U.S. Central Command reassigned the Eisenhower to Somalia last week from its mission supporting NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, said U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown in Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based.
The spokesman said the Eisenhower was the only U.S. aircraft carrier in the region. The vessel is carrying approximately 60 aircraft, including four fighter jet squadrons, he said.
Terror warning issued
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi reissued a terror warning Tuesday to Americans living in or visiting the Horn of Africa.
Monday evening’s airstrike came after the suspects were seen hiding on a remote island on the southern tip of Somalia, close to the Kenyan border, Somali officials said.
The key target, Fazul, 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.
Largely isolated, the coast north of Lamu is predominantly Muslim and many residents are of Arab descent. Boats from Lamu often visit Somalia and the Persian Gulf, making the Kenya-Somalia border area ideal for him to escape.
Neighbor's invasion strategy
Ethiopia forces had invaded Somalia to prevent an Islamic movement from ousting the weak, internationally recognized government from its lone stronghold in the west of the country. The U.S. and Ethiopia both accuse the Islamic group of harboring extremists, among them al-Qaida suspects.
Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes took just 10 days to drive the Islamic group from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns.
Ethiopian and Somali troops had in recent days cornered the main Islamic force in Ras Kamboni, a town on Badmadow island, with U.S. warships patrolling offshore and the Kenyan military guarding the border to watch for fleeing militants.
U.S. officials said after the Sept. 11 attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and al-Qaida members are believed to have visited it.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview published Tuesday in the French newspaper Le Monde that suspected terrorists from Canada, Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere have been among those taken prisoner or killed in the military operations in Somalia.
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report.