MOGADISHU, Somalia — A leading militant accused of having ties with al Qaida was killed early Thursday in a U.S. military airstrike on a small central town, potentially slowing an Islamist insurgency that's been raging for more than a year in Somalia.
Aden Hashi Ayro, a slight, Afghanistan-trained fighter believed to be in his early 30s, led the militant group known as al Shabaab — "the youth" — which last month was added to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations because of its alleged ties to al Qaida. Sheik Muhktar Robow, a spokesman for the militant group, confirmed Ayro's death.
Lt. Joe Holstead of the U.S. Central Command said that the military had carried out an attack on "a known al Qaida target and militia leader" near the town of Dusamareb in central Somalia, about 300 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu. Another U.S. official with knowledge of the operation confirmed that Ayro was killed. That official requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive military operation.
The pre-dawn strike, which residents said killed more than a dozen other people, was the fourth time in 16 months that the U.S. military has bombarded reputed Islamist hideouts in Somalia. But it would be the first time that a strike netted a major U.S. target.
Ayro developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous men in East Africa as the leader of Shabaab, the militant wing of an Islamic fundamentalist movement that took over Mogadishu in 2006 and imposed religious law.
Ahmed Samatar, a Somalia expert at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said that Ayro's death wouldn't significantly weaken the insurgency because anger against the Ethiopian military occupation — and U.S. support for it — runs too deep.
"I have little doubt that the resistance will continue until there is a full withdrawal of Ethiopian troops out of Somalia and a new legitimate and competent national government is established," Samatar said.
U.S. officials say that Ayro trained in militant camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was installed as a top militia leader by Hassan Dahir Aweys, the elder statesman of Somalia's Islamist movement whom U.S. officials have long accused of links to al Qaida. Aweys, who's believed to be in hiding outside Somalia, has denied the charge.
Neighboring Ethiopia — backed by U.S. military and intelligence support_ invaded Somalia, toppled the Islamists and brought the U.N.-backed transitional government to power. But Shabaab quickly regrouped under Ayro's leadership. Since January 2007, the militant group has been blamed for a growing string of roadside bombings, assassinations and guerrilla attacks on Somali and Ethiopian forces.
The violence has plunged Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, into its worst crisis in memory and forced a mass exodus from Mogadishu, a once-pretty seaside city that now looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. The U.N. refugee agency says that 1 million Somalis — perhaps one-fifth of the population — have fled their homes and are living as refugees in their own country.
U.S. officials charge that Ayro provided protection for al Qaida operatives who carried out the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which left more than 220 people dead, and the 2002 car bombing of a Kenyan resort hotel frequented by Israeli tourists.
Analysts also link Ayro to the murders of four foreign-aid workers in the northern Somaliland region and a journalist working for the British Broadcasting Corp. In 2005, he reportedly dug up a colonial-era Italian cemetery and built a mosque and rudimentary training camp on the site.
Islamist officials said Ayro had been in Mogadishu commanding the militant group until a few days ago when he arrived in Dusamareb, a well-known hideout.
Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, described as a top commander, also was killed in Thursday's strike, said Robow, the militant group's spokesman.
"It will not stop our operations," Robow said. "We will double our attacks, and I call for all Islamist fighters to strengthen their holy war against the infidels and their puppets."
Residents of Dusamareb said that at about 4 a.m., four low-flying fighter planes buzzed the town and slammed several missiles into a series of homes, including one housing Ayro and several other militants.
"We so far collected 15 dead bodies, some of them shattered to pieces," Mohamed Daud Ali, a 41-year-old resident, said by telephone. He said some victims were taken to hospitals and treated for "terrible burns."
Previous U.S. strikes in Somalia have drawn criticism from human rights groups, which say that most of the victims are civilians.
(Omar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Bengali reported from Baghdad. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.)