MOGADISHU, Somalia — An American warship bombarded a desolate mountain village in northeastern Somalia on Friday in an apparent strike on Islamist militants, Somali officials said Saturday.
The Pentagon wouldn't confirm the attack, but the governor of Bari province in Somalia's Puntland region said a U.S. Navy destroyer launched cruise missiles into the hills above the remote village of Bargal after militants fought with local security forces.
The governor, Muse Geele Yusuf, said the militants, who he said included Somalis as well as fighters from other Arab countries, suffered heavy casualties. Some news accounts quoted officials as saying that at least one of the dead militants was an American and that others came from Great Britain, Sweden, Yemen and Eritrea.
The strike was at least the third U.S. military action inside Somalia this year and the first in Puntland, a region in northern Somalia that previously had been untouched by fighting between Islamic militants that the Bush administration says are linked to al-Qaida and a transitional government backed by American ally Ethiopia.
Puntland officials said that they alerted American military officials stationed at the U.S. base in neighboring Djibouti that a few dozen Islamic militants had arrived by fishing boat at Bargal on Wednesday and were attempting to set up a base there.
The militants clashed with Puntland security forces on Friday, wounding five soldiers and two local officials, Yusuf said. After the clashes, a U.S. Navy destroyer launched missiles into the hills above Bargal, Yusuf said.
Bargal is located near the Indian Ocean on the northeastern tip of Somalia.
Islamic extremists have been on the run inside Somalia since the beginning of the year, when a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopian troops routed a group of Islamists known as the Union of Islamic Courts that last summer took control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia.
Twice in January the U.S. military launched airstrikes on suspected Islamist hideouts in southern Somalia, and American special forces reportedly entered southern Somalia during Ethiopia's campaign to topple the Islamists.
But the arrival of Islamists in Puntland surprised local officials because the region, which has existed as a semi-autonomous state within Somalia since 1998, largely has escaped the country's violence.
When the Islamists controlled southern Somalia last year, they didn't mount a serious effort to seize Puntland, which has its own security force and is home to Somalia's interim, U.S.-friendly president, Abdullahi Yusuf.
Because of its relative security, Puntland draws hundreds of refugees every day from southern Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Humanitarian officials say the port city of Bosasso is the center of the world's largest human-trafficking operation, with refugees paying up to $50 to be smuggled by boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.
At least 360 people died last year while making the perilous crossing, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Bush administration officials have accused the Islamic Courts of sheltering three al-Qaida members allegedly responsible for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. More than 220 people died in those attacks.
In recent months, the U.S. military has closely coordinated the hunt for Islamic militants in East Africa with Ethiopia and Kenya as well as Somalia's weak transitional government.
FBI and CIA agents also have interrogated dozens of prisoners who were being held secretly in Ethiopia and Kenya after being caught trying to escape Somalia in January.
The prisoners included at least two Americans—Daniel Joseph Maldonado, who has pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to undergoing military training with al-Qaida in Somalia, and Amir Mohamed Meshal, who was imprisoned in Ethiopia for three months before being released in May, with no charges filed against him.
(Elmi, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Mogadishu; Bengali reported from Nairobi, Kenya.)