Somali rebel leader's fate unclear after US air strike

Mogadishu (AFP) - US forces have carried out air strikes against senior members of Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels, with casualties reported but uncertainty hanging over the fate of the group's leader, officials said.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed that the attack was aimed at the group's leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also referred to as Abu-Zubayr, and that the bombs definitely hit the meeting of Shebab chiefs.

But he said it was unclear if Godane, listed by the US State Department as one of the world's eight top terror fugitives, had been killed in the raid.

"US special operations forces using manned and unmanned aircraft destroyed an encampment and a vehicle using several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions," Kirby said.

If confirmed, Godane's death would be a major blow for the group -- although Somali officials said late Tuesday they were still trying to establish who was killed.

"The Shebab suffered big casualties during the attack. We can't give further details until we get additional information on the exact number of casualties, but what I know is that the target was the leadership," government spokesman Ridwan Haji Abdiweli told reporters.

Washington has carried out a series of drone missile strikes in the past, including attacks reportedly targeting Godane.

- $7 million reward -

The Shebab refused to be drawn on speculation that Godane had been killed.

"Let the Americans say that they have killed Shebab's leader," a senior Shebab official told AFP. "So far the Americans just gave us rumours."

The air raid came days after African Union (AU) troops and government forces launched "Operation Indian Ocean", a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from the Islamist rebels and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue -- multi-million dollar exports of charcoal.

Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor for southern Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, said the strike hit a Shebab hideout used as a training camp for suicide bombers in a remote village of the Lower Shabelle region, south of the capital Mogadishu.

As the offensive gathers pace, authorities in Mogadishu, the seat of Somalia's internationally-backed but fragile government, said they were willing to give "misled" Shebab members one last chance to surrender.

"They can surrender within 45 days, but anyone who stands against that offer will be recognised as a criminal and brought to justice," Somalia's minister for national security, Khalif Ahmed Ereg, told reporters.

Godane, 37, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, took over the leadership of the Shebab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile strike.

Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognised Godane as the head of the "mujahedeen" in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden's death show the late Saudi Islamist leader had lower regard for the Somali's abilities.

He is included in a third category of men on whom information warrants a $7-million (5.35-million-euro) reward from the US, alongside Nigeria's Boko Haram leader, but under the Taliban's Mullah Omar, for whom a tip is worth up to $10 million, and Zawahiri, who fetches $25 million.

- 'A major blow' -

"If confirmed, the death of Ahmed Godane could deal a major blow to Al-Shebab, and could be the beginning of the end," said Abdi Aynte, who heads the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute think tank.

"The irony is that Godane killed (his) would-be obvious successor, Ibrahim al-Afghani, in a major internal rift last year," Aynte added, saying Godane had structured the Shebab "to bury the organisation with him".

Clint Watts, fellow of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said if Godane had been killed it would have a "significant impact" and that the group would be likely to splinter.

The Shebab are fighting to topple the government, and regularly launch attacks against state targets, as well as in neighbouring countries that contribute to the AU force.

The US strike comes as the United Nations and aid workers warned that large areas of Somalia are struggling with dire hunger and drought, three years after famine killed more than a quarter of a million people.

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