(CBS/AP) A U.S. Air Force gunship has conducted a strike against suspected members of al Qaeda in Somalia, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports exclusively.
The targets included the senior al Qaeda leader in East Africa and an al Qaeda operative wanted for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa, Martin reports. Those terror attacks killed more than 200 people.
The AC-130 gunship is capable of firing thousands of rounds per second, and sources say a lot of bodies were seen on the ground after the strike, but there is as yet, no confirmation of the identities.
The gunship flew from its base in Dijibouti down to the southern tip of Somalia, Martin reports, where the al Qaeda operatives had fled after being chased out of the capital of Mogadishu by Ethiopian troops backed by the United States.
Once they started moving, the al Qaeda operatives became easier to track, and the U.S. military started preparing for an air strike, using unmanned aerial drones to keep them under surveillance and moving the aircraft carrier Eisenhower out of the Persian Gulf toward Somalia. But when the order was given, the mission was assigned to the AC-130 gunship operated by the U.S. Special Operations command.
If the attack got the operatives it was aimed at, reports Martin, it would deal a major blow to al Qaeda in East Africa.
Meanwhile, a jungle hideout used by Islamic militants that is believed to be an al Qaeda base was on the verge of falling to Ethiopian and Somali troops, the defense minister said Monday.
While a lawmaker had earlier told The Associated Press that the base was captured, Somalia's Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire said troops had yet to enter it and that limited skirmishes were still ongoing, though troops were poised to take the base.
Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes were involved in the two-day attack, a government military commander told the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Shire said there had been heavy fighting with high numbers of casualties.
"There are a lot of casualties from both sides," he said, declining to give details.
Residents in the coastal seaport of Kismayo, some 90 miles northeast of Ras Kamboni, said they saw wounded Ethiopian soldiers being loaded onto military helicopters for evacuation.
"I have seen about 50 injured Ethiopian troops being loaded onto a military chopper," said Farhiya Yusuf. She said 12 Ethiopian helicopters were stationed at the Kismayo airport.
Somali officials said the Islamic movement's main force is bottled up at Ras Kamboni, the southernmost tip of the country, cut off from escape at sea by patrolling U.S. warships and across the Kenyan border by the Kenyan military.
In Mogadishu, Somalia's president made his first visit to the capital since taking office in 2004. During the unannounced visit, President Abdullahi Yusuf was expected to meet with traditional Somali elders and stay at the former presidential palace that has been occupied by warlords for 15 years, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
U.S. officials warned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that extremists with ties to al Qaeda operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni and that al Qaeda members are believed to have visited it.
Three al Qaeda suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement. The Islamists deny having any links to al Qaeda.
Somalia's government had struggled to survive since forming with backing from the United Nations two years ago, and was under attack by the Islamic militia when Ethiopia's military intervened on Dec. 24 and turned the tide.
But many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked Ethiopian troops, witnesses said, sparking a firefight in the second straight day of violence in the capital, Mogadishu.
© MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.