U.S. officials said Tuesday they carried out airstrikes against the top leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Shabab group in Somalia, but they would not comment on whether the operation had killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the Islamist group's leader.
"We are assessing the results right now," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said Tuesday. "We believe we hit what we were aiming at. ... If we killed him, it is a significant blow to their operation and their abilities."
The strike, which used manned and unmanned aircraft, took place late Monday, Kirby said.
The Associated Press quoted a Shabab commander as saying Godane was in the convoy of vehicles struck in the attack.
A Twitter account, purportedly affiliated with the Somali government, said Godane had been killed, but the tweet was later removed.
The Somali government does not have a embassy in Washington, but it is represented by its United Nations mission in New York. No one at the mission would comment on the reports.
Godane is on the U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists, with a $7-million bounty on his head. He is rarely photographed, caught on video or seen in public, likely because of the threat of U.S. airstrikes that have targeted his predecessors.
Godane has been seen as aligning Shabab more closely with Al Qaeda and as embracing a more global anti-Western agenda, rather than focusing on the battle for control of Somalia that preoccupied some of his rivals in the group.
Godane's forces have killed some of those rivals; others have defected to the U.S.-supported government.
Shabab controls a large swath of rural Somalia, but it has been trying to regain power since being driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, and the port city of Kismayo by troops sent in by the African Union to restore stability.
The U.S. action reflects the seriousness with which U.S. officials view the threat posed by the group.
In recent months, Shabab has claimed responsibility for several attacks along Kenya's tourist coast that have killed dozens of people. It was responsible for last year's attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi that left almost 70 people dead.
In October, Navy SEALs raided the house of a Shabab leader, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima, in Baraawe, south of Mogadishu. The raid wasn't successful but it underscored American willingness to send troops into a hostile environment to go after the Shabab's top leadership.