MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – U.S. war planes killed an Islamist rebel said to be al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia and at least a dozen other people on Thursday in Washington’s biggest success in efforts to contain an insurgency raging since 2007.
The rebels said Aden Hashi Ayro — who led al Shabaab militants blamed for attacks on government troops and their Ethiopian allies – died in the first big hit for a string of U.S. air-strikes on Somali insurgents in the last year. “Infidel planes bombed Dusamareb,” Shabaab spokesman Mukhtar Ali Robow told Reuters by phone, referring to a town in central Somalia, where body parts lay strewn round a wrecked house. “Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed.”
The death of the Afghanistan-trained militant is likely to bolster the Western-backed Somali government’s efforts to stem the insurgency that has been gaining ground in recent months. But it is sure to enrage Ayro’s fellow militants, who say they are fighting a jihad to eject Ethiopian troops.
Ayro was a key figure on the ground masterminding the Islamists’ Iraq-style insurgency against the allied Somali-Ethiopian troops. The insurgency had intensified in recent weeks, with scores of deaths in Mogadishu and a series of hit-and-run raids by the Islamists in towns outside the capital.
Dusamareb residents said several other Shabaab fighters and civilians were killed in the 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 told Reuters. “People are counting the skulls to know the exact figure.”
Amina Warsame, another local, said residents were woken at around 2 a.m. (Wednesday 2300 GMT) by two huge blasts and counted four planes overhead. Shabelle said they were U.S. AC-130 gunships.
Robow said Ayro had trained many men: “We know our enemy is happy today, but their work will continue.”
Western security services have long seen lawless Somalia as a haven for militants. Warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, casting the country into chaos.
Somalia-based al Qaeda operatives were suspected in two suicide attacks in neighbouring Kenya that killed 224 people at the U.S. embassy in 1998 and 15 at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in 2002.
Security and intelligence sources say Ayro, who has been in hiding since surviving a U.S. air strike in Jan. 2007, trained in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He was one of six members or associates of al Qaeda thought by the United States 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 al 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 government and Ethiopian forces routed it in a two-week war.
Under Ayro, the Shabaab adopted Iraq-style tactics, including assassinations and roadside bombs and claimed at least one suicide bombing — unheard of in Somalia’s moderate Sufi Islamic customs.
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, which aid workers say has triggered Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis. A local rights group says clashes in the capital killed 6,500 residents last year alone.