MOGADISHU — Huge explosions were heard early Thursday near the southern Somali town of Kismayo, followed by the sound of aircraft, a local elder and an Islamist official said.
"We heard huge explosions. Then a few minutes later we heard the sound of aircraft. We are not yet sure what it was," Abdulahi Ise, the elder, said.
He added that the explosions came early in the morning in the area of Qandal, a few kilometres outside Kismayo, a port town controlled by Al-Qaeda linked Shebab Islamists.
A Shebab official in the Kismayo area said his men had reported an aerial bombing raid on a Shebab base.
"The military aircraft of the enemy carried out an aerial bombardment on a base where some mujahedeen fighters were staying. Initial reports indicate several mujahedeen fighters including muhajirs (foreigners) died," the official said, refusing to be named.
"We believe the aircraft belonged to the US," he added.
The United States has in the past few years launched several raids on Somalia, targeting senior regional Al-Qaeda figures.
In January 2007 a US air raid left dozens of people dead at Ras Kamboni in the far south of Somalia. It was coupled with a second raid 155 kilometres further north.
One of the presumed targets of those raids was Al-Qaeda's chief in east Africa Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, who was gunned down earlier this month in a shootout at a roadblock in Mogadishu after he made a wrong turn.
Fazul was believed to be behind the August 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the worst attack by Al-Qaeda until the September 2001 attacks on the United States.
In March 2008 the US military said it fired at least one cruise missile into Somalia, targeting an Al-Qaeda leader.
Reports from Mogadishu said that strike killed at least 10 people, including an Al-Qaeda military leader Aden Hashi Ayro.
Ayro trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and had been linked to the deaths of foreign aid workers in Somalia. He is also thought to have been a target of the 2007 US air strikes.
Another senior Al-Qaeda figure in the region, the Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted for the 2002 attacks on Iraeli targets on the Kenyan coast, was killed in September 2009 in another US raid on south Somalia.
In November 2002, Al-Qaeda killed 15 people when gunmen led by Nabhan attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and fired two missiles at an Israeli charter airliner in Kenyan airspace the same night, missing it.
Outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta, who is poised to become the next US defense secretary, said earlier this month that the Shebab were looking to extend their operations and carry out attacks abroad.
"The threat from Al-Shebab to the US and Western interests in the Horn of Africa and to the US homeland is significant and on the rise," Panetta said in written responses to the Senate Armed Services committee.
"Al-Shebab leaders, who have claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda since 2007, are developing ties with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and are showing an increasing desire to stage international terrorist attacks in addition to their acts of violence inside Somalia," he said in a written text.
The Shebab still control most of south and central Somalia and roughly half of the capital Mogadishu despite gains in recent months by the African Union AMISOM forces that are propping up the transitional government the Shebab are trying to topple.
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