BOSSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - A U.S. warship attacked a suspected al Qaeda target in northern Somalia on Friday, CNN reported, and residents said missiles pounded hills where foreign jihadists fled after clashing with local forces.
There was no immediate news of casualties from the strike, which unnamed sources told CNN was the second in six months to target a suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 240 people.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the report.
Locals in Barga, a port in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, said the missiles appeared to be aimed at a group of Islamists, including foreigners, who landed by boat in the area on Wednesday and had a gun battle with local police.
“Missiles fired from a ship hit the mountains where the Islamic fighters and foreigners are hiding,” one resident, who asked not to be named, told Reuters by radio phone on Saturday. “A plane was circling and guiding the ship where to hit.”
He said Puntland forces were also pursuing the group, which one senior local official said were remnants of an Islamic Courts movement that ruled much of southern Somalia last year.
Another Barga resident said at least two uniformed U.S. military officers arrived in the port late on Friday.
“They were driven by Puntland troops and were carrying telecommunications equipment,” he said. “It looks like Puntland gave the Americans permission to fire at the wanted Islamists.”
The United States also launched air strikes in southern Somalia in January aimed at three top al Qaeda suspects but killed their allies instead, U.S. officials have said.
Those suspects were wanted for the embassy bombings too, and were attacked near a coastal village where Islamist leaders fled after being routed from the capital Mogadishu by the Somali interim government and its Ethiopian military allies.
The Puntland official said the group headed into the hills behind Barga after arriving by boat from that southern village, Ras Kamboni. He said it included 13 foreign fighters.
Washington says six al Qaeda operatives or associates are in Somalia, including alleged embassy bomber Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, and Abu Talha al-Sudani, accused of orchestrating the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15.
Others include Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, hardline leader of the ousted Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC), and Adan Hashi Ayro, head of the SICC’s feared military wing, the Shabaab.
“We recognise the importance of working closely with allies to seek out, identify, locate, capture, and if necessary kill terrorists and those who would provide them safe haven,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
“The very nature of some of our operations, as well as the success of those operations is often predicated on our ability to work quietly with our partners and allies,” he added, when asked to comment on the CNN report.
In Somalia’s chaotic capital a district chairman was killed on Friday, the latest victim of suspected Islamist rebels who have vowed to wage an Iraq-style insurgency.
In the southern port of Kismayu, police said a local intelligence chief, Maktal Farah, was also killed on Friday.
“He was shot several times in the head by masked men,” said Kismayu police chief Ibrahim Khalif, who survived an attack himself when gunmen sprayed his car with bullets on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Mogadishu, Sahra Abdi Ahmed in Kismayu, and Kristin Roberts and Doina Chiacu in Washington