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01 May 2008 10:33
A United States air strike killed an Islamist commander thought to be al-Qaeda’s leader in Somalia and at least a dozen other people on Thursday, the insurgents and witnesses said.
Aden Hashi Ayro, who led al Shabaab militants blamed for near daily attacks on government troops and their Ethiopian allies, died in the latest of several US bombings in recent months to have targeted Somali rebel leaders.
“Infidel planes bombed Dusamareb,” Shabaab spokesperson Mukhtar Ali Robow told Reuters by telephone, referring to a small town in central Somalia. “Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed.”
Fighting between the Islamists and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops has intensified in recent weeks, with an Iraq-style insurgency in Mogadishu and the rebels launching hit-and-run raids outside the capital.
Dusamareb residents said several other Shabaab fighters and civilians were killed in a pre-dawn air strike.
Local broadcaster Shabelle said insurgent leaders had been meeting there and put the total death toll at 15.
“Bits of human flesh are scattered on the ruins of the building,” witness Farah Hussein said.
Amina Warsame, another local, said residents were woken at about 2am local time by two huge blasts.
She said she and her neighbours counted four planes overhead. Shabelle said they were US AC-130 gunships.
Western security services have long viewed lawless Somalia as a haven for terrorists. Warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, casting the country into chaos.
Somalia-based al-Qaeda operatives were thought to have been involved in two suicide attacks in neighbouring Kenya that killed 224 at the US embassy in 1998 and 15 at an Israeli-owned hotel in 2002.
Security and intelligence sources say Ayro, who has been in hiding since he survived a US air strike in January 2007, became al-Qaeda’s leader in Somalia after training in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
He was one of six members or associates of al-Qaeda thought by the US to be in Somalia.
In late February, Washington officially listed the Shabaab as a terrorist organisation, saying it had close ties to Osama bin Laden’s network.
The Shabaab is the militant wing of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council that took over most of southern Somalia for the second half of 2006, until the interim government and Ethiopian forces routed it in a two-week war.
Under Ayro, the Shabaab had adopted Iraq-style tactics, including assassinations and roadside bombs and claimed at least one suicide bombing.
Western security officials and diplomats say it has also been responsible for killing aid workers and journalists, the desecration of an Italian colonial-era cemetery in 2005 and scores of attacks during the insurgency.
In rare taped comments released in November, Ayro ordered his fighters to attack a small African Union peacekeeping force based in Mogadishu.
Civilians in the city have borne the brunt of fighting between the rebels and allied Somali-Ethiopian forces. A local rights group says clashes in the capital killed 6 500 residents last year alone.—Reuters
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