By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A U.S. military airstrike in Somalia has targeted the leader of the Islamist militant group al Shabaab, Somali and U.S. officials said on Tuesday, but they added it may take time to determine whether Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed.
The United States launched Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions to destroy an al Shabaab encampment in south-central Somalia late on Monday, the Pentagon said. It said both manned and unmanned aircraft were used in the operation.
Some U.S. officials privately said they believed Godane was killed in the strike, but the U.S. government was not ready to confirm that - even as it acknowledged the significance his death would have in the fight against the al Qaeda-linked group.
"If he was killed, this is a very significant blow to their network, to their organization, and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Since taking charge in 2008, Godane has restyled the group as a global player in the al Qaeda network - a transformation that was highlighted when it killed at least 67 people in an attack on a Kenyan shopping mall in September last year.
The group has also been carrying out guerrilla attacks in parts of the Somali capital Mogadishu, where it is fighting the Western-backed government of Somalia.
Godane's close associate, Ahmed Mohamed Amey, was killed by a U.S. air strike in January.
After the Westgate mall attack, Navy SEALS stormed ashore into the al Shabaab stronghold of Barawe, where a regional official said the latest air strike was also launched, but they failed to capture or kill their target.
The Somali government and al Shabaab officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
SOMALI MILITANTS BOMBARDED
"There was an air strike at a base where senior members of al Shabaab had a meeting last night," a senior intelligence official who gave his name as Ahmed told Reuters on Tuesday.
"So far Godane's death is a strong rumor that may or may not turn to be true. What we know is that the militants were bombarded. However, it is difficult to know how many of them or who particularly died," he added.
Abdiqadir Mohamed Sidii, governor of the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia where the strike occurred some 245 km (150 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu, said he believed Godane and other senior al Shabaab members had been killed.
"We understand a U.S. drone killed Ahmed Abdi Godane and other seven senior members last night near Hawaay area around Barawe town," Sidii told Reuters by phone.
Sidii did not say how he got the information on the attack, given the location is in an area still under al Shabaab control.
Residents in Haaway said they heard loud explosions late on Monday in an area they described as a densely forested.
Al Shabaab, which aims to impose its own strict version of Islam, controlled Mogadishu and the southern region of Somalia from 2006 to 2011. It was forced out of the capital by peacekeeping forces deployed by the African Union.
African Union forces launched a new offensive this year to drive the Islamists out of towns and other areas they still control, in response to a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu by the militants whose fighters have targeted legislators and the presidential palace.
(Additional reporting by Feisal Omar and George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by James Macharia, Alison Williams, Pascal Fletcher and Ken Wills)