Helicopters strafe al-Qaida in Somalia

Attack helicopters strafed suspected al-Qaida fighters in southern Somalia on Tuesday, witnesses said, following two days of airstrikes by U.S. forces � the first U.S. offensives in the African country since 18 American soldiers were killed here in 1993.

In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said American forces killed five to 10 people in an attack on one target in southern Somalia believed to be associated with al-Qaida. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation's sensitivity, said a small number of others present, perhaps four or five, were wounded.

A Somali Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but witnesses told The Associated Press they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment on the helicopter strike.

The U.S. is hunting down Islamic extremists, said the Somali defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Earlier, Somalia's president said that the U.S. was pursuing suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and that the effort has his support.

Col. Shino Moalin Nur, a Somali military commander, told the AP by telephone late Tuesday that at least one U.S. AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al-Qaida training camp Sunday on a remote island at the southern tip of Somalia next to Kenya.

Somali officials said they had reports of many deaths.

On Monday, witnesses and Nur said, more U.S. airstrikes were launched against Islamic extremists in Hayi, 30 miles from Afmadow. Nur said attacks continued Tuesday.

"Nobody can exactly explain what is going on inside these forested areas," the Somali commander said. "However, we are receiving reports that most of the Islamist fighters have died and the rest would be captured soon."

In Washington on Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman spoke of one strike in southern Somalia, but would not confirm any of the details or say whether any al-Qaida militants were killed.

The assault was based on intelligence "that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them," Whitman said.

Somali Islamic extremists are accused of sheltering suspects in the 1998 embassy bombings. American officials also want to ensure the militants no longer pose a threat to Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government.

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has arrived off Somalia's coast and launched intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia, the U.S. military said. Three other U.S. warships were conducting anti-terror operations.

U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia by sea after Ethiopia's military invaded Dec. 24 in support of the interim Somali government. The offensive drove the Islamic militia out of much of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, and toward the Kenyan border.

President Abdullahi Yusuf, head of the U.N.-backed transitional government, told journalists in Mogadishu that the U.S. "has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania."

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said it was not known how many people were killed, "but we understand there were a lot of casualties. Most were Islamic fighters."

Another attack by an AC-130 gunship reportedly occurred Monday afternoon on Badmadow island, in a group of six rocky islands known as Ras Kamboni � a suspected terrorist training base.

The U.S. military's main target on the island was thought to be Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who allegedly planned the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225 people.

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