US special forces targeted al-Qaida in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia – The U.S. helicopters, guns blazing, swooped over a convoy carrying a top al-Qaida fugitive in rural southern Somalia. Elite commandos rappelled to the ground, collected two bodies, and took off on a cloud of red dust.

The raid took just 15 minutes.

Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted for the 2002 car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner, was killed in Monday's raid, according to U.S. and Somali officials.

The helicopter assault — rare in Somalia since the October 1993 battle of "Black Hawk Down" that was chronicled in a book and movie — underscored Washington's concerns that lawless Somalia is fast becoming a haven for terrorists, including foreigners who want to plot attacks beyond the African country's borders.

Al-Shabab, a powerful local Islamist insurgent group with links to al-Qaida, swiftly vowed retaliation.

"They will taste the bitterness of our response," a senior al-Shabab commander told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly. Al-Shabab has foreign fighters in its ranks and seeks to impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia.

Three senior U.S. officials familiar with the operation said Nabhan was killed.

A fourth official said the attack was launched by forces from multiple U.S. military branches and included Navy SEALs, at least two Army assault helicopters and the involvement of two U.S. warships in the region for months.

All the U.S. officials were hesitant to provide details and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the secretive commando operation.

Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman, said Nabhan was wounded along with three of his guards. Nabhan then was taken away by the U.S. forces, "but we do not know if he is alive or dead."

"They came under attack from six helicopters and defended themselves for some time, but due to the number of the attackers, who overpowered them, and to the fact that they were unexpectedly ambushed, they sustained a lot of bullet wounds and then they were taken by the enemy," he said.

Nabhan's absence "will not affect our operation," he said.

Abdulkadir Sheikh Mohamed Nur, governor of the Lower Shabelle region, said five militants, including Nabhan, were killed, based on intelligence reports. U.S. forces took the bodies of the dead and wounded, he said.

Nur added that he welcomed such attacks but urged the U.S. and other allies to inform Somali officials beforehand to "avoid civilian casualties."

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to give any specifics, neither confirming nor denying the scenario laid out by Sen. James Webb, D-Va.

"In concept, these were special ops troops coming off naval ships, taking out an element of al-Qaida and returning back to its original point of origin, which to me, if the target was appropriate, is an appropriate way to use force against international terrorism," Webb said, adding: "Would you agree?"

Mullen responded: "Globally, we're very focused on this." He said he would give details only in a closed session of the committee.

Associated Press writers Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita Baldor in Washington, Carley Petesch in Johannesburg, and Katharine Houreld, Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Makda Tesfaledet in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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