Western special forces raided a town in southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab on Saturday, carrying out a strike aimed at senior commanders of the radical Islamist movement behind last month’s Kenya shopping centre massacre.
The fishing town is in the heart of an area controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliate. Photo: ALAMY
By David Blair
The assault took place shortly before dawn on the coastal town of Barawe, 110 miles south of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.
Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, is known to have stayed in Barawe in the past. The fishing town is in the heart of an area controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliate.
Al-Shabaab claimed that British and Turkish special forces carried out the raid and that one SAS officer was killed. However, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said that "no UK forces at all" were involved. Turkey's government made a similar denial. France, which has carried out raids in Somalia in the past, also said that none of its soldiers was deployed.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little said: "I decline comment."
In 2009, the US Navy Seals attacked Barawe and killed six al-Shabaab fighters, including one senior commander.
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The soldiers landed on a beach beside the town's whitewashed buildings. “Gunfire broke out for about 10-15 minutes,” a resident told the Agence France Presse news agency.
Some reports suggested that helicopters were used; others said the assault was entirely seaborne. An al-Shabaab spokesman admitted that one fighter was “martyred”, but another report suggested that at least seven were killed.
The assault was on a two-storey house where foreign fighters stayed, residents said.
Mohamed Bile, a resident of Barawe, said militants in Barawe closed down the town in the hours after the assault, and that all traffic and movements have been restricted. Militants were carrying out house-to-house searches, likely to find evidence that a spy had given intelligence to a foreign power used to launch the attack, he said.
Last month, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the assault on Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, which claimed at least 67 lives. This would be the first Western strike on al-Shabaab since that siege.
Warships from America, Britain and France have a permanent presence off the Somali coast. Al-Shabaab has been expelled from Mogadishu and Kismayo, the biggest port in southern Somalia, leaving Barawe as one of the few population centres still under its control.
Al-Shabab recruits walk down a street on March 5, 2012 in the Deniile district of Somalian capital, Mogadishu (AFP/GETTY)
”Westerners in boats attacked our base at Barawe beach and one was martyred from our side,” an al-Shabaab spokesman told Reuters news agency. “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.”
The most recent special forces operation in Somalia took place in January when French soldiers tried to free an intelligence agent held captive by al-Shabaab. The operation, mounted by 50 troops with six helicopters, failed and the hostage was killed.
France and America both have permanent military bases in neighbouring Djibouti, giving them the ability to mount raids into Somalia.