U.S. defense officials have confirmed that the leader of the terrorist group al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi al-Mohammad, also known as Ahmed Godane, was the target of a recent U.S. drone attack in Somalia.
Somali officials said Monday's attack targeted senior al-Shabab leaders meeting in the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said U.S. forces destroyed an encampment and vehicle north of the port city of Barawe with hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions.
“This operation was a direct strike against the al-Shabab network, specifically the group’s leader,” said Kirby, who would not answer questions on casualties because the military is still assessing the mission's "effectiveness."
"We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," Kirby had told reporters on Monday, when he also said Godane's death, if confirmed, would represent a "very significant blow to their network, to their organization, and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks."
The rebels reported that several people were killed in the attack but would not say if Godane was among the casualties.
Godane, 37, is listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the world's top terror fugitives.
Witness to airstrike
Witnesses said the drone targeted three vehicles traveling on a road, two of which were hit by multiple missiles, while the third may have escaped.
Lower Shabelle's governor, Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur, told VOA's Somali Service that the airstrike occurred between the towns of Haawaay and Sabale, about 70 kilometers north of Barawe, an al-Shabab stronghold.
Nur, who was traveling in the area with African Union troops, said he saw lights followed by a "ground-shaking explosion."
Sources in the area say al-Shabab sealed off the vicinity soon after the attack.
U.S. drone strikes have targeted al-Shabab officials in the past, including one in January that nearly hit Godane.
The United States has offered up to $7 million for information leading to the capture of Godane, who has led al-Shabab since 2007.
The group once controlled large portions of central and southern Somalia, and enforced a strict form of Islamic law, including a ban on music and chopping off the hands of alleged thieves.
Responsible for violence
Al-Shabab has also claimed responsibility for attacks in neighboring countries, including bomb blasts that killed more than 70 people in Uganda's capital in 2010, and the 2013 assault on a Nairobi shopping mall that left more than 60 people dead.
The al-Qaida-linked militant group has lost territory to African Union and Somali government forces during the past four years, but it remains a threat to Somalia's stability.
The group's fighters have killed six members of Somalia's parliament this year and carried out two major assaults on the presidential palace.
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.
VOA's Carla Babb contributed reporting from the Pentagon.