MOGADISHU, Somalia - A senior al-Qaida suspect wanted for bombing American embassies in East Africa was killed in a U.S. airstrike, a Somali official said Wednesday, a report that if true would mean the end of an eight-year hunt for a top target of Washington's war on terror.
There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S. In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said the U.S. killed five to 10 people in an attack on an al-Qaida target in southern Somalia but did not say who was killed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation's sensitivity, said a small number of others present, perhaps four or five, were wounded.
The report came as U.S forces apparently launched a third day of airstrikes in southern Somalia. Witnesses said an AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al-Qaida training camp. At least four separate strikes were reported Wednesday around Ras Kamboni, on the Somali coast and a few miles from the Kenyan border.
Also Wednesday, Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister said American troops were needed on the ground to root extremists from his troubled country, and he expected the troops soon. It was the first indication that the U.S. military may expand its campaign.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who allegedly planned the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, was killed in a U.S. airstrike early Monday morning local time, according to an American intelligence report passed on to the Somali authorities.
"I have received a report from the American side chronicling the targets and list of damage," Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, told The Associated Press. "One of the items they were claiming was that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is dead."
If confirmed Mohammed's death would be a major victory for the U.S. in its hunt for the 1998 embassy bombers. The strike was part of the first U.S. offensive in the African country since 18 American soldiers were killed there in 1993.
The campaign is aimed at capturing al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia since the Islamic militia that sheltered them began losing ground to Somali government soldiers backed by Ethiopian troops last month.
The Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies have driven the Islamist movement that had dominated the country for six months out of the capital and toward the Kenyan border.
Hassan said local intelligence reports indicated Abdirahman Janaqow, one of the Islamists' deputy leaders, had also been killed.
Fazul, 32, joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan and trained there with Osama bin Laden, according to the transcript of an FBI interrogation of a known associate. He had a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 225 people.
He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and the near simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.
Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aideed said U.S. special forces are needed on the ground as government forces backed by Ethiopia are unable to capture the last remaining hideouts of suspected extremists.
"The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al-Qaida terrorists is for U.S. special forces to go in on the ground," Aideed, a former U.S. Marine said. "They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people."
"As far as we are aware they are not on the ground yet, but it is only a matter of time," Aideed said.
At least 31 civilians, including a newlywed couple, have been killed in strikes, according to a Somali lawmaker. The report could not be independently verified.
U.S. Defense Department officials, speaking privately Tuesday in Washington because the department was not releasing the information, suggested the military was either planning or considering additional strikes in Somalia.
With a U.S. aircraft carrier off Somalia's coast, commanders can call in strikes. Defense Department officials said that as of Tuesday, three other U.S. warships were conducting anti-terror operations off Somalia's coast.
Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday that the U.S. military assault had been based on intelligence. He would not confirm any details of the strikes, conducted by at least one AC-130 gunship. He would not say if any specific members of al-Qaida had been killed, or address if the operations were continuing.
In the capital Mogadishu some said the attacks would increase anti-American sentiment in the largely Muslim country, where people are already upset by the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population.
Leaders of Somalia's Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on Ethiopian troops.
Police at the Kenyan coastal border town of Kiunga on Monday arrested a wife of Mohammed, with her three children, according to an internal police report seen by the AP.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. The interim government was established in 2004.