Mogadishu, Somalia — U.S. missiles destroyed the house of the man identified by the U.S. military as the top al-Qaida commander in Somalia, killing him and 10 others Thursday in a pre-dawn attack that analysts warned could torpedo peace talks.
The killing of Aden Hashi Ayro comes amid escalating fighting and a spiraling humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa nation.
Islamic fighters have staged a series of attacks on towns in the months leading up to the U.N.-sponsored talks, scheduled to start May 10. The insurgents typically hold the towns for a few hours, free people from jails, then withdraw with captured weapons.
Somali government officials have said Ayro, who was believed to be in his 30s, trained in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and headed al-Qaida's cell in Somalia.
Few Somalis had heard of him before 2005, when Ayro desecrated a colonial Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, throwing hundreds of exhumed corpses into the sea. He then built a mosque on the site and began training fighters there - many of whom would be eager to take his place.
An International Crisis Group report linked Ayro to the murders of four foreign aid workers, a British journalist and Somali peace activist Abdulqadir Yahya.
The U.N.-backed talks, which are slated to be more inclusive than previous rounds, offered a slim hope of bringing together the disparate groups in the armed opposition, including some Islamists.
Thursday's attack has damaged the negotiations, said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
"However much the Americans claim the war on terror is one thing and the peace process is another thing, it's not that clear-cut," Abdi said. "This will definitely have political repercussions."
Capt. Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed there was a U.S. airstrike early Thursday in the vicinity of the central Somali town of Dusamareeb. Another U.S. military spokesman, Bob Prucha, said the attack was against a "known al-Qaida target and militia leader in Somalia." Both declined to provide further details.
Another U.S. defense official, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed the strike targeted Ayro.
The U.S. missiles left a smoldering hole where Ayro's home had stood in Dusamareeb.
"The bodies were beyond recognition, some of them cut into pieces, and those wounded have been severely burned," resident Nur Farah told The Associated Press.
Local elder Ahmed Mumin Jama said the house was "totally destroyed," as were other houses nearby. Of the 11 dead, five bodies were retrieved from Ayro's house, he said, while the rest came from surrounding homes. Four people were being treated for wounds.
Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for the al-Shabab militia that Ayro led, called Ayro a martyr for the Islamist cause and vowed to carry out retaliatory attacks.