WASHINGTON — The destroyer USS Chafee fired her deck guns at two or three suspected "high-value terrorist targets" in the Puntland area along the northern coast of Somalia on Saturday, U.S. officials told NBC News. The suspects are accused of taking part in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
According to the officials, the U.S. had "actionable intelligence” gathered by U.S. Special Operations Forces and local tribal leaders that the suspects were in the area.
The suspects reportedly include Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is believed to be the mastermind of the 1998 attacks on U.S. Embassies in Africa that killed more than 200, and the 2002 Kenya attack on an Israeli hotel and simultaneous attempt to bring down an Israeli plane.
Out of fear that the suspects would leave the area, the decision was made to order the strike from the Chafee, which fired 20 five-inch rounds from her deck guns, NBC News reported.
The Chafee was the U.S. military's closest asset, the officials said. Airstrikes would have come too late.
There has been no battle damage assessment to determine if any of the suspects were killed or wounded in the attack, the officials told NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski.
A Pentagon spokesman told The Associated Press he had no information about the incident, but a regional governor also reported the attack.
The extremists had arrived Wednesday by speedboat at the port town of Bargal, Muse Gelle told The AP.
Gelle said the area is a dense thicket, making it difficult for security forces from the semiautonomous republic of Puntland to intervene on their own.
A local radio station quoted Puntland’s leader, Ade Muse, as saying that his forces had battled with the extremists for hours before U.S. ships arrived and used their cannons. Muse said five of his troops were wounded, but that he had no information about casualties among the extremists.
Head of al-Qaida cell allegedly targeted
One of the suspects, Mohammed, had also been targeted in December in airstrikes by U.S. AC-130 gunships in Somalia, NBC News reported.
He is the leader of the East Africa cell of al-Qaida and is believed to be the mastermind of the al-Qaida attacks in 1998 on U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Mohammed was also the author of the 2002 attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the attempted shoot-down of an Israeli charter plane that same day.
Also known as Harun Fazul, he is on the FBI's most wanted list and here is a $5 million reward for his capture.
A task force of coalition ships, called CTF-150, is permanently based in the northern Indian Ocean and patrols the Somali coast in hopes of intercepting international terrorists. U.S. destroyers are normally assigned to the task force and patrol in pairs.
“This is a global war on terror and the U.S. remains committed to reducing terrorist capabilities when and where we find them,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told The AP.
“We recognize the importance of working closely with allies to seek out, identify, locate, capture, and if necessary, kill terrorists and those who would provide them safe haven,” Whitman said. “The very nature of some of our operations, as well as the success of those operations is often predicated on our ability to work quietly with our partners and allies.”
'Boats and guns'
Puntland’s minister of information, Mohamed Abdulrahman Banga, told the AP that the extremists arrived heavily armed in two fishing boats from southern Somalia, which they controlled for six months last year before being routed by Ethiopian troops sent to prop up a faltering Somali government.
“They had their own small boats and guns. We do not know exactly where they came from — maybe from Ras Kamboni, where they were cornered in January,” he said.
Local fishermen, contacted by telephone, said about a dozen fighters arrived Wednesday, but Puntland officials said the number could be as high as 35.
The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces that drove the Islamic forces into hiding.
Jim Miklaszewski and Robert Windrem, both of NBC News, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.