Somali elders reported new US air strikes in the south of the country on Wednesday, as the UN Security Council prepared to discuss moves to send in African peacekeepers.
But there was still no word on whether the targets of the strikes — several alleged Al-Qaeda operatives including some held responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in east Africa — had been killed.
“There were more air strikes by the United States and they shall continue until terrorists are eliminated from that part of Somalia,” said Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aidid.
The attacks were confirmed by a second senior Somali official who said areas “suspected of being hideouts for the Islamists and their foreign fighters” were hit, although a Pentagon official in Washington denied knowledge.
“Attacks occurred in villages in Badade and Afmadow districts twice in several locations,” the official said on condition of anonymity, adding there was no confirmed information about the number and identity of casualties.
Local clan elders in Badade and Afmadow informed colleagues in the nearby port of Kismayo about the strikes, according to Kismayo resident Yusuf Ismail Aden.
The reports of fresh strikes near the Kenyan border came amid criticism of US military action in Somalia, which Washington says target Al-Qaeda operatives being sheltered by the country’s defeated Islamist movement.
However, Somali Information Minister Ali Jama said he was unaware of any air operations other than those by Ethiopian forces who spearheaded the Somali government’s offensive against Islamist fighters which began last month.
The United States carried out its first overt military action in Somalia since 1994 with a targetted air strike on Monday against suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts using an AC-130 gunship.
Somali elders said at least 19 people had died in the attack.
The Pentagon denied US involvement in at least two later helicopter strikes in the region reported by the Somali defense ministry.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini on Wednesday backed the US campaign against Al-Qaeda, after the EU executive condemned the air strikes.
Blair said it was Britain’s duty to support those fighting terrorists, as he called the extremists in Somalia a threat to the wider world while Frattini said: “The problem is not the Americans, but the terrorists.”
US foe Iran condemned the strike as a violation of international law while the United Nations condemned action that could worsen conflict in the Horn of Africa.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned against the “new dimension this kind of action could introduce to the conflict” and the Security Council was due to meet Wednesday to discuss the situation and proposals for African peacekeepers.
Monday’s was the first known US military strike in Somalia since the withdrawal of US forces there in 1994, and followed the rout of Islamist forces by Ethiopian and Somali government troops.
It was not immediately clear whether they had been killed by air strikes aimed at them and members of the Somali Islamic courts, but Jama said that many targets were hit.
“Many of them were killed in the last attack, but I do not have reports that Fazul was among them,” he said. “That has to be confirmed by commanders on the ground.”
Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi on Wednesday ordered defeated Islamist fighters to gather in camps across the country, but remained silent on the US raids.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on an Ethiopian military vehicle in southern Mogadishu on Wednesday but missed and killed a female bystander instead, in the second such attack in two days, a witness said.
At least two people were killed in a rocket attack on a nearby facility housing Ethiopian troops late Tuesday and the woman was killed amid house-to-house searches for Islamists.
Somalia has been without a functioning central authority since 1991.
The Islamic courts had taken control of much of southern and central Somalia since seizing Mogadishu in June.
Ethiopia said Wednesday that it had effectively concluded its military intervention in Somalia but did not indicate when its troops would leave