An air strike by US military forces struck an area where leaders of Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked militants were meeting, intelligence sources said on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether any insurgent commanders were killed.
The strike prompted rumours among Somali government officials that it had targeted al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane and other leaders who were suspected to have been at the location, but there was no confirmation they were hit.
Al-Shabaab leader targeted in airstrike
The Pentagon confirms the leader of Somalian al-Shabaab militant group was targeted by US airstrikes that struck an encampment and a vehicle Monday night.
If he were killed, it would be a major victory against the group.
Since taking charge in 2008, Godane has restyled the group as a global player in the al-Qaeda franchise - a transformation that was highlighted when it killed at least 67 people in an attack on a Kenyan shopping mall in September.
The militants have also staged guerrilla attacks in parts of the capital, as well as in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda.
Godane's close associate, Ahmed Mohamed Amey, was killed by a US air strike in January.
After the Westgate assault, Navy SEALs stormed ashore into the al-Shabab stronghold of Barawe, where a regional official said the air strike was launched against, but failed to capture or kill their target.
The US Department of Defence said late on Monday that its forces had carried out the operation against al-Shabab and would provide more information "when appropriate". The Somali government and al-Shabab officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
"There was an air strike at a base where senior members of al-Shabab had a meeting last night," a senior intelligence official who gave his name as Ahmed said on Tuesday.
"So far Godane's death is a strong rumour that may or may not turn to be true. What we know is that the militants were bombarded. However, it is difficult to know how many of them or who particularly died," he added.
Abdiqadir Mohamed Sidii, governor of Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia, where the strike occurred, some 245 kilometres south-west of the capital Mogadishu, said he believed Godane and other senior al-Shabab members had been killed.
"We understand a US drone killed Ahmed Abdi Godane and other seven senior members last night near Hawaay area around Barawe town," Sidii said by phone.
Sidii did not say how he got the information on the attack, given the location is in an area still under al-Shabab control.
Residents in Haaway said they heard loud explosions late on Monday in an area they described as a densely forested.
Al-Shabab, which aims to impose its own strict version of Islam, controlled Mogadishu and the southern region of Somalia from 2006 to 2011. It was forced out of the capital by peacekeeping forces deployed by the African Union.
African Union forces launched a new offensive this year to drive the Islamists out of towns and other areas they still control, in response to a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu by the militants whose fighters have targeted legislators and the presidential palace.
Pentagon set to open second drone base in Niger
The Pentagon is preparing to open a drone base in one of the remotest places on Earth: an ancient caravan crossroads in the middle of the Sahara.
After months of negotiations, the government of Niger, a landlocked West African nation, has authorised the US military to fly unarmed drones from the mud-walled desert city of Agadez, according to Nigerien and U.S. officials.
The previously undisclosed decision gives the Pentagon another surveillance hub — its second in Niger and third in the region — to track Islamist fighters who have destabilised parts of North and West Africa. It also advances a little-publicised US strategy to tackle counterterrorism threats alongside France, the former colonial power in that part of the continent.
Although the two allies have a sporadic history of quarreling when it comes to military action, US and French troops have been working hand in glove as they steadily expand their presence in impoverished West Africa. Both countries are alarmed by the presence of jihadist groups, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, that have taken root in states whose governments are unable to exert control over their own territory.
In Niamey, Niger's capital, US and French forces set up neighbouring drone hangars last year to conduct reconnaissance flights over Mali, where about 1200 French soldiers are trying to suppress a revolt that erupted in 2012.
In Chad, the US Air Force has been flying drones and other aircraft from a French military base to search for hundreds of schoolgirls abducted by Islamic militants in northern Nigeria.
The White House approved $US10 million ($10.77) in emergency aid on August 11 to help airlift French troops and provide midair refueling for French aircraft deployed to West Africa. Analysts said the monetary sum was less important than what it symbolised: US endorsement of a new French plan to deploy 3000 troops across the region.
Reuters, Washington Post