MOGADISHU: Somali al Shabaab militants said on Saturday Western forces had raided a coastal town under cover of darkness, killing a rebel fighter, and officials said the target had been a Chechen leader of the Islamist group.
Foreign forces landed on the beach at Barawe, about 180 km (110 miles) south of Mogadishu, and launched an assault at dawn that drew gunfire from rebel fighters in one of the militia's coastal bases, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for al Shabaab's military operations, told Reuters.
It was not clear whether the assault was related to the attack on a Kenyan mall two weeks ago, which the al Qaeda-linked group said it carried out and which killed at least 67.
Shabaab's leader Ahmed Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, said the mall attack was in retaliation for Kenya's incursion in October 2011 into southern Somalia to crush the insurgents.
Western navies patrol the sea off Somalia - mired in conflict for more than two decades - and have in the past launched strikes on land from warships.
Barawe is fully controlled by the Islamist militia with almost no government presence.
U.S. and French forces have carried out similar attacks in Somalia in the past.
Somali security officials gave partly conflicting accounts.
"We understand that French troops injured Abu Diyad also known as Abu Ciyad, an al Shabaab leader from Chechnya. They killed his main guard who was also a foreigner. The main target was the Shabaab leader from Chechnya," an intelligence officer based in Mogadishu, who gave his name as Mohamed, told Reuters.
The French army said earlier it was not involved in the raid.
A second Somali intelligence officer said the Barawe attack had been carried out by U.S. forces. He confirmed the target was a foreign national, and said another foreigner was wounded.
Col. Abdikadir Mohamed, a senior police officer in Mogadishu, said he believed the attacking troops were American and their target was a senior foreign al Shabaab official.
In 2009, helicopter-borne U.S. special forces killed senior al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a raid in southern Somalia. Nabhan was suspected of building the bomb that killed 15 people at an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002.
NATO denied involvement in the Barawe attack, as did EU Navfor, Europe's counterpiracy mission off the Somalian coast.
"Westerners in boats attacked our base at Barawe beach and one was martyred from our side," Musab said.
"No planes or helicopters took part in the fight. The attackers left weapons, medicine and stains of blood, we chased them," he added.
"Although we both exchanged grenades, the attackers had silencer guns, so the weapons heard were ours."
Residents said fighting erupted at about 3 a.m. (midnight GMT).
"We were awoken by heavy gunfire last night, we thought an al Shabaab base at the beach was captured," Sumira Nur, a mother of four, told Reuters from Barawe on Saturday.
"We also heard sounds of shells but we do not know where they landed. We don't have any other information."
The United States has used drones to kill fighters in Somalia in the past. In January 2012, members of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs rescued two aid workers after killed their nine kidnappers.
In January this year the French military used helicopters to attack an al Shabaab base in a southern village to rescue a French hostage. Two French commandos were killed and the insurgents later claimed they had killed the hostage.
France said it played no part in the latest raid.
"The (French) army has no one in the area, no one in contact with the al Shabaab," a military spokesman said.
Al Shabaab were driven out of Mogadishu in late 2011 and are struggling to hold on to territory elsewhere in the face of attacks by Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union forces trying to prevent Islamist militancy spreading from Somalia.
Al Shabaab wants to impose its strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, across the Horn of Africa state.