MOGADISHU: A top suicide bomb-maker for Somalia's Shebab rebels has been killed in a drone strike, government officials said Tuesday after the latest attack by US forces against the al Qaeda-linked group.
Residents near the site of the strike in southern Somalia reported at least three people were in the charred vehicle, which burst into flames shortly after the sound of an aircraft was heard overheard.
Somali Interior Minister Abdikarin Hussein Guled told government radio that his intelligence services had been tracking Ibrahim Ali Abdi, also known as Anta-Anta, for some time before the strike took place on Monday.
"The operation in which this man has been killed was very important for the government. This man had a major role in the death of many innocent civilians and his death will help in bringing back peace," the minister told Radio Mogadishu.
The strike came weeks after an audacious attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi claimed by Shebab in which at least 67 people were killed.
The minister did not say who carried out the drone attack, but an official in Washington said the US military was responsible.
Officials from Somalia's internationally-backed government have described the dead militant as being well-known for making suicide bomber vests and preparing car bombs used regularly by the rebels to attack government-held areas.
There has been no comment from the rebels.
The missile strike also follows a raid by US Navy SEALS on the southern port of Barawe in early October that failed to hit its alleged target: a senior Shebab militant leader and Kenyan of Somali origin called Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima.
Barawe is a key Shebab training centre specialising in preparing suicide attack squads, according to a United Nations monitoring report earlier this year.
An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington, said Monday that the latest missile attack was a drone strike conducted by the US army. The source did not specify where the drone was launched, but the US army operates the devices from bases in Djibouti and Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia.
The Shebab have been driven out of Somalia's major towns, including the capital Mogadishu and the key southern port of Kismayo, by a UN-mandated African Union force that now numbers 17,700 men.
However the group still controls large swathes of southern Somalia and has over the past few months stepped up the scale of its suicide attacks, including storming a UN compound in Mogadishu in June.
The AU force has requested its size be boosted by a quarter to 23,000 troops.
UN Monitoring Group reports earlier this year estimated the Shebab are still some 5,000 strong, and remain the "principal threat to peace and security to Somalia".
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month warned that "military gains against al Shebab that have been achieved in recent years are at serious risk of being reversed".
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