MOGADISHU: U.S. forces have carried out airstrikes against the leader of Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab rebels, with casualties reported but uncertainty hanging over the fate of the main target, officials said Tuesday.
The Pentagon confirmed an "operation" was carried out Monday against the hard-line militia, and that it was "assessing the results."
"The Americans carried out a major airstrike targeting a gathering by senior Al-Shabab officials, including their leader Abu-Zubayr," said Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor for southern Somalia's Lower Shabelle region.
Abu-Zubayr is the often used name for Al-Shabab supreme commander Ahmed Abdi Godane, listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the world's eight top terror fugitives.
Washington has carried out a series of drone missile strikes in the past, including attacks reportedly targeting Godane.
"We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
Al-Shabab said they did not want to comment on possible casualties or the fate of Godane.
The airstrike comes days after African Union troops and government forces launched "Operation Indian Ocean," a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from the Islamist rebels and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue - multimillion dollar exports of charcoal.
Al-Shabab fighters have largely fled in the face of the advance, and Nur said the airstrike was targeting commanders as they gathered for a meeting.
"They were meeting to discuss about the current offensive in the region," Nur said. "There were casualties inflicted on the militants, but we don't have details so far."
Nur said the strike hit an Al-Shabab hideout used as a training camp for suicide bombers, in remote villages of the Lower Shabelle region, south of the capital Mogadishu - the seat of Somalia's internationally backed but fragile government.
On Saturday, the AU mission in Somalia, AMISOM, said it had captured the town of Bulomarer, some 160 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu.
The town was the scene of an attempted raid by French commandos in January 2013 to free an intelligence agent being held hostage. The bid failed and resulted in the death of two members of the French special forces as well as the hostage.
AMISOM and Somali government troops were also seen on roads towards Barawe, the last major port held by the hardline gunmen on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.
U.S. special forces in October launched an attack on a house in Barawe targeting a top Al-Shabab commander, but were fought off, with several U.S. Navy SEALS believed to have been wounded.
Godane, 37, who was reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, took over the leadership of Al-Shabab in 2008 after then-chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a U.S. missile strike.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri has recognized Godane as the head of the "mujahedeen" in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden's death show the late Saudi Islamist leader had lower regard for the Somali's abilities.
He is included in a third category of men on whom information warrants a $7 million reward, alongside Nigeria's Boko Haram leader, but under the Taliban's Mullah Omar, for whom a tip is worth up to $10 million, and Zawahri, who fetches $25 million.
Al-Shabab are fighting to topple Somalia's internationally-backed government, and regularly launch attacks against state targets, as well as in neighbouring countries that contribute to the AU force.
On Sunday, Al-Shabab carried out a car bomb and gun attack against an intelligence headquarters in the capital Mogadishu. At least seven Al-Shabab fighters and five others were killed.
The fighting comes as the United Nations and aid workers warn that large areas of Somalia are struggling with dire hunger and drought, three years after famine killed more than a quarter of a million people. U.N. assessment reports released Tuesday said over a million people were struggling in conditions close to famine.