Unclear if US air raid killed Shebab leader: officials

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US warplanes have targeted the leader of Somalia's Shebab militants but it remains unclear if this top commander was killed in the air raid, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

The attack was launched on Monday, with both drones and manned aircraft bombing a gathering of Shebab commanders, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

"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.

Kirby confirmed that the attack was aimed at 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 had been killed in the raid.

"We are still assessing the results of the operation, and we'll provide additional information when and if appropriate," he said.

The assault did not involve US ground troops, Kirby added.

The governor for southern Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, had said earlier that US forces had conducted a "major air strike" south of the capital Mogadishu against a gathering of Shebab senior figures, including the militants' senior commander, Godane.

The State Department has listed Godane as one of the world's eight top terror fugitives and, if confirmed, his death would mark a serious setback for the Shebab forces.

Last October, US special operations forces launched an attack on a house in Barawe against a top Shebab commander but were forced to withdraw without taking out their target.

Kirby declined to provide details of the special operations forces' unit that took part in the air raid or the nature of the intelligence that led to the strike.

The bombing raid reflected a commitment by Washington and its allies "to detect, deter, disrupt and defeat violent extremists who threaten progress in the region, as well as ... threaten to conduct terrorist attacks against innocent people around the world," he said.

Godane has boasted that Shebab gunmen carried out the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, which left at least 67 shoppers, staff and security personnel dead.

"I think it's important to remind everybody that in September 2013, Godane publicly claimed al-Shebab was responsible for the Westgate mall attack," Kirby said.

Shebab militants are fighting to overthrow the Somali government, regularly launching attacks against state targets and in neighbouring countries that contribute to the African Union force.