Witnesses said 31 civilians, including a newly wed couple, were killed by the two helicopters yesterday. This claim and another of high civilian casualties in attacks on Monday could not be verified.
Yesterday’s helicopter strikes took place in the morning near Afmadow, 350 km southwest of the capital Mogadishu, a hilly, forested area close to the Kenyan border. On Monday, AC-130 warplanes killed what Somali officials said were large numbers of extremists in Hayi, 50 km from Afmadow, and 250 km away on a remote island believed to be an Al-Qaeda training camp on the southern tip of Somalia.
“US planes struck at Bankajirow this morning between 10 a.m. and noon. I think the US planes saw donkey carts crossing the grazing land and thought it was the Islamists trying to flee,” an elder told Reuters by telephone.
The elder from Afmadow, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, spoke to Reuters by telephone from the Kenya-Somalia border crossing at Liboi.
Hayi and Bankajirow are between Afmadow and Doble, areas near the Kenyan border where the Somali government and allied Ethiopian forces believe Islamists fled after being chased across south Somalia in a two-week war last month.
The elder — a traditional leader in Somali culture — said the Islamists were not in the area under attack but about 240 km further south at Ras Kamboni, a suspected hide-out for militants at the southernmost tip of Somalia. “People don’t understand why the Americans have bombed the field. The Islamists are not there, they are miles away,” he said. Local people have fled the area but are unable to cross the sealed Kenyan border, he added.
It was the first overt military action by the US in Somalia since it led a UN force in the 1990s that intervened in Somalia in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between UN forces and Somali warlords, including the “Black Hawk Down” battle that left 18 US servicemen dead.
In a further escalation of US involvement, the US military said the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had arrived off the coast to join three other US warships conducting anti-terror operations.
US warships have been seeking to capture Al-Qaeda members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia intervened Dec. 24 in support of the government, which had been struggling to assert its authority in the face of a Somali Islamic movement.
Ethiopian and Somali troops had over the last few days cornered the main Islamic force in Ras Kamboni, with US warships patrolling offshore and the Kenyan military guarding the border to watch for fleeing militants.
The US Embassy in Nairobi reissued a terror warning yesterday to Americans living in or visiting the Horn of Africa.
President Yusuf told journalists in Mogadishu that the US “has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”
But others in the capital said the attacks would only increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country. Already, many in predominantly Muslim Somalia had resented the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population and has fought two brutal wars with Somalia, most recently in 1977.
Ethiopia’s prime minister said in an interview published yesterday that suspected terrorists from Canada, Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere have been among those taken prisoner or killed in the military operations in Somalia.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was quoted by French newspaper Le Monde as saying that he did not know the exact number of prisoners in Somalia “because it changes constantly.”
The US airstrikes will not improve the long-term stability of the volatile East African country, the European Commission said yesterday.
“Any incident of this kind is not helpful in the long term,” said Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman for EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel.