U.S. special forces aboard helicopters penetrated into Somalia and, guns blazing, attacked a convoy said to contain a top al-Qaida fugitive. U.S. and Somali officials confirmed Tuesday the man was killed, and Islamist insurgents vowed to seek revenge.
Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan citizen, was wanted for questioning in connection with 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. The missiles missed the airliner.
Monday's commando-style action took place amid growing concerns that al-Qaida is gaining a foothold in this lawless nation.
Many experts fear Somalia is becoming a haven for al-Qaida, a place for terrorists to train and gather strength much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. Last year, U.S. missiles killed reputed al-Qaida commander Aden Hashi Ayro — marking the first major success after a string of U.S. military attacks in 2008.
Two U.S. military officials said forces from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command were involved in the raid in southern Somalia. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was secret.
Three senior U.S. officials familiar with the operation said Tuesday that Nabhan was killed. The officials in Washington spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Abdi Fitah Shawey, deputy mayor for security affairs in Somalia's capital, also confirmed 30-year-old Nabhan was killed. He cited intelligence reports.
‘Alive or dead’
Al-Shabab militia spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage confirmed the attack but not Nabhan's death.
"We are sure that the enemy took Nabhan with wounds, but we do not know that he is alive or dead," he said.
Somali witnesses to Monday's raid say six helicopters buzzed an insurgent-held village near Barawe, some 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Mogadishu, before two of the aircraft opened fire on a vehicle, killing two and wounding two.
Two senior members of al-Shabab, who asked that their names not be used because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said their fighters will retaliate for the raid.
"They will taste the bitterness of our response," one of the commanders told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, said the "surgical" precision of Monday's raid shows that U.S. has specific intelligence in Somalia.
"I think it will certainly make al-Shabab leaders much more cautious when they are operating because obviously the United States has very precise intelligence about their movements," he said.
Like much of Somalia, Barawe and its surrounding villages are controlled by the militant group al-Shabab, which the U.S. accuses of having ties to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab, which has foreign fighters in its ranks, seeks to overthrow the government and impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia.
The U.N.-backed government, with support from African Union peacekeepers, holds only a few blocks of Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital.
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