MOGADISHU, Somalia --Somali officials said yesterday that dozens of people were killed in a U.S. airstrike on Sunday, most of them Islamist fighters fleeing in armed pickup trucks across a remote, muddy stretch of the Kenya-Somalia border.
U.S. officials said al-Qaida terrorists had been the target of the strike, which they said had killed about a dozen people. But the officials acknowledged that the identities of the victims were still unknown.
Several residents of the area, in the southern part of the country, said dozens of civilians had been killed, and news of the attack immediately set off new waves of anti-American anger in Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scarred capital, where the United States has a complicated legacy.
"They're just trying to get revenge for what we did to them in 1993," said Deeq Salad Mursel, a taxi driver, referring to the infamous Black Hawk Down episode in which Somali gunmen killed 18 American soldiers and downed two U.S. helicopters during an intense battle in Mogadishu.
The country's Islamist movement swiftly seized much of Somalia last year and ruled with mixed success, bringing a much-desired semblance of peace but also a harsh brand of Islam.
Two weeks ago that all changed after Ethiopian-led troops routed the Islamist forces and helped bring the Western-backed transitional government to Mogadishu. Ethiopian officials said the Islamists were a growing regional threat.
The last remnants of the Islamist forces fled to Ras Kamboni, an isolated fishing village on the Kenyan border that residents said had been used as a terrorist sanctuary before. Starting in the mid-1990s, they said, the Islamists built trenches, hospitals and special terrorist classrooms in the village and taxed local fisherman to pay the costs.
On Sunday a U.S. AC-130 gunship pounded the area around Ras Kamboni, and also a location farther north where U.S. officials said three ringleaders of the bombings in 1998 of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were hiding. Somali officials said those bombings had been planned in Ras Kamboni after a local Somali terrorist outfit invited al-Qaida to use the village as a base.
According to Abdul Rashid Hidig, a member of Somalia's transitional parliament who represents the border area, the U.S. airstrike on Sunday wiped out a long convoy of Islamist leaders trying to flee deeper into the bush, though he said he did not know if the specific suspects targeted by the United States had been with them.
Hidig toured the area with military officials yesterday and said he had met several captured foreign fighters who had come from Europe and the Middle East.
Hidig said two civilians had been killed by the airstrike, but representatives of the Islamist forces said it had killed many more.
Mustef Yunis Culusow, a former Islamist leader who abandoned the movement days ago, said the once-powerful Islamist movement's top leaders were now trapped in a small village with Ethiopian soldiers in front of them, the Indian Ocean behind them and now U.S. gunships circling above them.
"The leaders know they're finished," Culusow said in a telephone interview from Kismayo, a large town north of Ras Kamboni.