MOGADISHU, Somalia - The American military launched an airstrike Thursday targeting the head of al-Qaida in Somalia, a U.S. defense official said. The head of an Islamic insurgent group said the attack killed its leader.
Islamist leader Aden Hashi Ayro, believed to be the head of al-Qaida in Somalia, was killed when the airstrike struck his house in the central Somali town of Dusamareeb, about 300 miles north of Mogadishu, said Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for the Islamic al-Shabab militia.
Another commander and seven others were also killed, Robow said. Six more people were wounded, two of whom later died, said resident Abdullahi Nor.
"Our brother martyr Aden Hashi, has received what he was looking for — death for the sake of Allah — at the hands of the United States," Robow told The Associated Press by phone.
Capt. Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed there was a U.S. airstrike early Thursday in the vicinity of Dusamareeb. Another U.S. military spokesman, Bob Prucha, said the attack was against a "known al-Qaida target and militia leader in Somalia." Both declined to provide further details.
But another U.S. defense official confirmed that the military launched a missile strike targeting Ayro at about 3 a.m. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Over the past year, the U.S. military has attacked several suspected extremists in Somalia, most recently in March when the U.S. Navy fired at least one missile into a southern Somali town.
Somali government officials have said Ayro trained in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and is the head of al-Qaida's cell in Somalia.
He was a key figure in the al-Shabab movement, which aims to impose Islamic law and launches daily attacks on the shaky Somali government and their Ethiopian allies. Ayro also recently called for attacks on African peacekeepers in Somalia in a recording on an Islamic Web site.
Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, who Robow described as "a top commander" in the Al-Shabab, was also killed in Thursday's attack.
"We heard a huge explosion and when we ran out of our house we saw a ball of smoke and flames coming out of the house where one of the leaders of al-Shabab Aden Hashi Ayro was staying," said local resident Nur Geele.
Another resident, Nur Farah, said, "the bodies were beyond recognition, some them cut into pieces, and those wounded have been severely burnt."
Al-Shabab is the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement. The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization.
The Council of Islamic Courts seized control of much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. But troops loyal to the U.N.-backed interim Somali government and the allied Ethiopian army drove the group from power that December.
Ethiopia's archenemy, Eritrea, has offered assistance to the group, and it is re-emerging. In recent months it has briefly taken several towns, freeing prisoners and seizing weapons from government forces. The insurgents usually withdraw after a few hours but continue to target Ethiopian and Somali forces in an Iraq-style insurgency.
The United States has repeatedly accused the Islamic group of harboring international terrorists linked to al-Qaida, which is allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
America is concerned Somalia is a breeding ground for terrorist groups, particularly after the Islamic militants briefly gained control of the south and Osama bin Laden declared his support for them.
Fighting between government troops and the insurgents claimed thousands of lives last year and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.