The U.S. military confirmed an attack on a suspected al Qaeda target but did not identify the target.
Aden Hashi Ayro, leader of the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabab, was killed in the 3 a.m. attack on his home in the central town of Dusamareeb, the group's spokesman, Sheik Muqtar Robow, told The Associated Press. He said another top commander and seven others also died immediately.
"Our brother martyr Aden Hashi has received what he was looking for - death for the sake of Allah - at the hands of the United States," Robow told the AP by telephone.
Six people were wounded, with two later dying of their injuries, said Abdullahi Nor, a resident of Dusamareeb, about 300 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu.
U.S. military sources tell CBS Pentagon national security correspondent David Martin they have been tracking Ayro for at least a week, and that they fired 5 cruise missiles at his suspected hideout Wednesday night.
Capt. Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed there was a U.S. airstrike early Thursday in the vicinity of Dusamareeb. Another U.S. military spokesman, Bob Prucha, said the attack was against a "known al Qaeda target and militia leader in Somalia." Both declined to provide further details.
But another U.S. defense official confirmed that the military launched a missile strike targeting Ayro. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The attack comes days before U.N.-sponsored peace talks between insurgents and the government that are due to begin in Djibouti on May 10. Analysts say the strike is likely to harden extremists and make it more difficult to appeal to moderate elements in the Islamist movement.
"We heard a huge explosion and when we ran out of our house, we saw a ball of smoke and flames coming out of the house where one of the leaders of al-Shabab, Aden Hashi Ayro, was staying," resident Nur Geele said.
Another resident, Nur Farah, said: "The bodies were beyond recognition, some of them cut into pieces, and those wounded have been severely burned."
Ayro - the alleged head of al Qaeda's cell in the Horn of Africa nation - was a key figure in the al-Shabab movement, the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement. The U.S. State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization.
Al-Shabab and the Council of Islamic Courts want to impose Islamic law on Somalia.
Militants from the movement seized control of much of the south, including the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. Troops loyal to the U.N.-backed interim government - backed by Ethiopian troops - drove the group from power that December.
But militants wage daily attacks on soldiers from Somalia's shaky transitional government and troops' Ethiopian allies. With help from Ethiopia's archenemy, Eritrea, they are re-emerging in Somalia. In recent months, insurgents have briefly overtaken several towns, freeing prisoners and seizing weapons from government forces.
The militants usually withdraw after a few hours but continue to target Ethiopian and Somali forces in an Iraq-style insurgency. Fighting between government troops and the insurgents claimed thousands of lives last year and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Over the past year, the U.S. military has attacked several suspected extremists in Somalia, most recently in March, when the U.S. Navy fired at least one missile into a southern town.
The United States repeatedly has accused the Islamic group of harboring international terrorists linked to al Qaeda, which it blames for the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Washington is concerned that Somalia is becoming a breeding ground for terrorist groups, particularly after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden declared his support for Islamic militants who briefly seized control of the south.
"As I have said before, we will pursue terrorists worldwide," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington. "The U.S. is committed to identifying, locating, capturing and if necessary killing terrorist wherever they operate, train, plan their operations or seek safe harbor."
Ayro trained in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., Somali government officials say. He also called recently in a recording on an Islamic Web site for attacks on African peacekeepers in Somalia.
Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, who Robow described as "a top commander" in al-Shabab, also was killed, the group said.
The attacks will heighten anti-Americanism, said Iise Ali Geedi, an analyst at Somali University. They may also weaken the prime minister's push to bring more militant elements into the talks a proposal the president opposes.