US troops call in airstrike after they come under fire in Somalia

(CNN) — The US military conducted a “self defense” airstrike against al Shabaab fighters in Somalia early Thursday morning after a joint Somali-US force came under direct attack by militants.

US Africa Command, which oversees US troops in the region, announced in a statement Thursday that the US had conducted three “precision” airstrikes against al Shabaab militants in Somalia, killing seven fighters.

The drone strikes took place in Jilib, Somalia, about 200 miles southwest of Mogadishu, Africa Command said in its statement.

A US defense official told CNN that pro-government Somali troops, accompanied by US military advisers, came under direct attack while approaching the objective of a planned counterterrorism raid. The joint US-Somali ground force returned fire in an attempt to neutralize the al Shabbab attackers but were unable to and the US troops called in the airstrike to defeat the threat. There were no US casualties as a result of the firefight.

“During the Somali-led counterterrorism operation, a group of armed al-Shabaab terrorists posed an imminent threat to Somali-led and US forces. In response, the US conducted a self-defense strike against the armed militant group to neutralize the threat,” Samantha Reho, a spokesperson for Africa Command, told CNN.

The strike was carried out under pre-existing self-defense authorities separate from the new authorities allowing US forces to target al Shabaab in offensive strikes, an authority granted by President Donald Trump in March.

The two additional strikes against the original objective of the raid were carried out under the new authorities, which permit such strikes in a geographically defined area.

The intended target were members of al Shabaab’s intelligence network.

“US forces work closely with Somali military forces against al-Shabaab in Somalia to degrade the al-Qaeda affiliate’s ability to recruit, train, and plot external terror attacks throughout the region and in the United States,” Africa Command said in its statement announcing the strike.

US intelligence believes al Shabaab is al Qaeda’s third-largest affiliate.

While Trump granted Africa Command the authority to carry out offensive strikes in March, the first such strike took place about three months later, in June. There has been a recent uptick in the number of strikes carried out in recent weeks. Thursday’s strikes mark the sixth time the new authorities have been used.

Last week, the US military conducted two airstrikes against al Shabaab targets about 15 miles southwest of Mogadishu. That strike was in support of an engagement between US-backed Somali National Army troops and al Shabaab militants armed with heavy weapons, according to a US defense official.

On July 30, the US carried out a targeted airstrike on Ali Jibal, who the US called a “senior al Shabaab terrorist.”

Fewer than 100 US troops have been advising local Somali forces battling al-Shabaab since 2013. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who oversees US troops in Africa, told reporters in April that the US seeks to help Somali security forces gain the ability to provide for their own security by 2021.

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