May 5, 2017 / 1:11 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. Navy SEAL killed in Somalia raid on militant compound

WASHINGTON/MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed and two troops wounded in a raid on an al Shabaab militant compound in Somalia, U.S. officials said on Friday, in what appeared to be the first U.S. combat death in the African country since the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" disaster.

The White House has granted the U.S. military broader authority to carry out strikes in Somalia against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, the latest sign President Donald Trump is increasing U.S. military engagement in the region.

Still, U.S. participation in the Somalia-led assault was carried out under authorities in place for years, the Pentagon said. The targets were al Shabaab fighters tied to attacks.

"The objective was a compound and a group of people ... associated with attacks against U.S., Somalia and AMISOM forces," said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, referring to African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeepers.

U.S. Africa Command said a service member was killed by small arms fire on Thursday while U.S. forces were advising and assisting a Somali National Army operation in Barii about 40 miles (60 km) west of the capital, Mogadishu.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the man killed was a U.S. Navy SEAL. It was not immediately clear whether the wounded were also from the elite military unit.

An American-Somali translator was also wounded, the official said.

The U.S. troops were hunting an al Shabaab commander near the Shabelle river alongside Somali special forces, a Mogadishu-based security source told Reuters. There were no Somali casualties.

The raid took place at Darusalam village, where Abdirahman Mohamed Warsame, known as Mahad Karate, was believed to be hiding, said another security source. Warsame is the deputy leader of al Shabaab and U.S. authorities have offered $5 million for information that brings him to justice.

"Warsame played a key role in the Amniyat, the wing of al-Shabaab responsible for assassinations and the April 2, 2015 attack on Garissa University College that resulted in 150 deaths," said a statement on the Rewards for Justice website run by the U.S. State Department.

It was not clear yet if Warsame was the target of the raid, the security source said.

A spokesman for al Shabaab, which wants to overthrow Somalia's weak Western-backed government and impose its own strict brand of Islamic law, said U.S. troops had attacked one of their bases.

U.S. Africa Command said in a statement "U.S. forces are assisting partner forces to counter 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 America".

Somalia has been shattered by civil war that began when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 then turned on each other.

A U.S. military intervention in 1993 ended after the "Black Hawk Down" incident, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed when Somali militia shot down two helicopters in Mogadishu.

AMISOM forces have been in Somalia since 2007, gradually expanding to secure the capital and pushing into major towns. U.S. military advisers have secretly operated there since around 2007.

Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Feisal Omar in Mogadishu and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish

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