None of the three most-wanted Al Qaeda suspects believed to be hiding in southern Somalia were killed by a U.S. airstrike this week, a senior U.S. official here said Thursday.
“The three high-value targets are still of intense interest to us,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The attack Sunday night by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship killed eight to 10 people believed to be linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, the official said.
Previous reports from other U.S. and Somalian sources suggested that the dead might include suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, or the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan seaside resort and a subsequent missile attack against an Israeli airliner.
In an interview Thursday with the BBC’s Somalian-language news service, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael E. Ranneberger confirmed that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is wanted by the FBI for his alleged role in the 1998 attack, had not been captured or killed.
The senior official said the other two Al Qaeda suspects also remained at large, probably hiding in Somalia.
They are Abu Taha al Sudani of Sudan, who is accused of planning the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing in Kenya, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan of Kenya, also wanted in connection with the hotel attack.
The official said that the three men were not the primary targets of Sunday’s attack, which instead was aimed at a separate but significant Al Qaeda operative who was moving with a group of about 20 individuals.
According to some reports, a small number of U.S. special forces were pursuing the suspects in Somalia, but the official denied those reports.
Amid mounting criticism over reports of ongoing U.S. airstrikes and claims that scores of civilians have died, Ranneberger launched a public-relations offensive Thursday, insisting that the U.S. launched only one strike and that there were no civilian casualties.
“It’s been troubling to see these reports about bombing and all these activities killing civilians,” the ambassador told the BBC. “I can tell you categorically that no civilians were killed or injured as a result of that action.”
U.S. involvement in Somalia, its first overt military intervention in the country since 1994, has set off a flurry of criticism and anti-American sentiment throughout East Africa. The banner headline Tuesday in one of Kenya’s largest daily newspapers read: “U.S. Warplane Rains Death on Somalia.”
Somalian government officials and witnesses claim scores of civilians have been killed by ongoing airstrikes in more than half a dozen villages in southern Somalia, with reports of new strikes as late as Wednesday. Officials suspect Ethiopia, which sent 4,000 troops to Somalia last month, may be involved in some of the strikes. The Ethiopian government has not commented.
Watira Suldan Farah, a mother of five, said Thursday that she fled her home village of Butiya shortly before it was attacked Wednesday by a “large white plane with a black tail. I don’t know what kind of plane it was. People were saying it was an AC-130. All I know is that it was doing a terrible bombing.”
Another report said five clan elders trying to reach the port city of Kismayo on Wednesday were shot to death by a gunship.
“We are victims,” said Hussein Tarabi, who said he lost 30 cattle in an airstrike against his village Wednesday. “We ask the U.S. government to stop the genocide and give us compensation. This is against humanity.”
On Wednesday, Amnesty International said the reports of heavy civilian casualties raised questions about whether the U.S. military had violated international law.
But U.S. officials insist they have not carried out any additional airstrikes since Sunday. The senior official said it was possible that Ethiopia was engaged in air attacks in pursuit of fighters with Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union.
Ethiopia helped Somalia’s transitional government crush the once-powerful alliance of religious leaders and continues to launch operations to capture or kill remnants of the Islamist movement.
Somalian politician Abdirashid Mohamed Hidig said he witnessed airstrikes Tuesday, which he said were conducted by the U.S. and Ethiopia. He told reporters that at least 50 civilians were killed.
Abdirahman Dinari, spokesman for the transitional government, dismissed such reports. Though Dinari previously told local reporters that the U.S. attacks were continuing through Tuesday, he said Thursday that there had been only one U.S. strike.
“The only casualties we know about are the eight people,” he said. “The rest is propaganda intended to mislead the people.” Dinari denied that Ethiopia had conducted any airstrikes in Somalia.
U.S. officials said operations to capture or kill the three Al Qaeda suspects would continue. Five ships have been dispatched to the region, including the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and the guided missile cruiser Anzio.
Special correspondent Abukar Albadri in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.