Three Americans – a US military service member and two contractors – were killed by Somalia’s al Shabaab militant group during an attack on a military base in Kenya used by US and Kenyan forces, the US military said.
The military’s Africa Command confirmed the deaths and said two other Americans from the US Department of Defence were wounded in the attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Lamu county, close to the Somali border.
“The wounded Americans are in stable condition and being evacuated,” Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a statement.
The attack presents another crisis for Washington as the Pentagon grapples with a rapidly escalating stand-off with Iran following a US drone strike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Tehran and Washington traded threats and counter-threats following the strike, stoking fears of open conflict.
The assault by al Shabaab, fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the Somali government and impose strict Islamic law, began before dawn and lasted around four hours, witnesses and military sources told Reuters.
A Kenyan police report seen by Reuters said the Islamist militants destroyed two aircraft, two US helicopters and multiple American military vehicles.
Kenyan military said five militants were killed in the attack. There were no immediate reports of Kenyan casualties.
In a statement earlier, al Shabaab claimed it destroyed seven aircraft and three military vehicles, without providing details. It also published pictures of masked gunmen next to an aircraft in flames.
AFRICOM said fewer than 150 US personnel were at the base, providing training and counterterrorism support to East African forces.
“Alongside our African and international partners, we will pursue those responsible for this attack,” said US Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa Command.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Paul Njuguna said the base was secured.
“This morning at around 5:30 am an attempt was made to breach security at Manda Air Strip. The breach was successfully repulsed,” he said in a statement.
“Arising from the unsuccessful breach a fire broke out affecting some fuel tanks at the airstrip. The fire is under control.”
In the operation to repulse the attack, at least five militants were killed and weapons including four AK47s were seized, Njuguna said.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 after cross-border attacks and kidnappings. They were later absorbed into an African Union peacekeeping force, now 21 000-strong, which supports the Western-backed Somali government.
EXPLOSION IN THE DARK
Independent investigator Benjamin Strick, who analyses satellite imagery for open-source investigation websites such as Bellingcat, said photos of gunmen next to a burning aircraft published by al Shabaab matched satellite images of buildings and a distinctive aircraft apron adjacent to the base but outside its perimeter.
Residents on nearby Lamu Island, a haven for wealthy tourists and visiting European royalty, said a loud explosion jolted them awake.
Abdalla Barghash said he saw a large plume of smoke rising from the Manda Bay mainland, where the airstrip and base are.
Lamu County, which is far more impoverished than the island, is frequently targeted by al Shabaab with roadside bombs and ambushes on travellers or attacks on isolated villages.