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Residents and authorities in Somalia say airstrike caused several casualties including children

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — An airstrike in a town in Somalia caused several casualties, including children, residents and authorities said, while three members of an al-Qaida-linked extremist group were killed.

The U.S. military in a statement Friday said “unfortunately, civilians were injured and killed” in the vicinity of a military operation by Somali forces in El-Lahelay village on Wednesday.

The U.S. said it evacuated injured civilians at the Somali government’s request but but that American forces had not conducted airstrikes or been at the scene of the operation.

The U.S. Africa Command did not respond to questions including the number of civilians killed and injured. The U.S. for years has conducted airstrikes in support of Somali forces combating the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group.

“The claim being spread by al-Shabab that U.S. forces caused the unfortunate harm to civilians is false,” the statement said. The U.S. in the past has acknowledged killing civilians with airstrikes.

Accounts by witnesses and local authorities of Wednesday’s events varied.

Amal Ali, a relative, told The Associated Press that an airstrike targeted a vehicle belonging to al-Shabab when it was passing near the family home in El-Garas town in Galmudug state. A grandmother and five of her grandchildren were killed, she said.

The children’s father, Dahir Ahmed, in a brief phone call confirmed the incident but said he could not immediately give details.

“It was an American airstrike,” Abdifatah Ali Halane, secretary-general of the El-Garas administration, told the AP. “They’ve been providing crucial aerial support throughout our operations against extremists in Galmudug state.”

He said the airstrike killed three people, including two suspected members of al-Shabab, and injured five people, including four children.

Halane said Somali forces quickly came for the wounded, who were evacuated to the capital, Mogadishu, for medical treatment.

Somalia’s deputy information minister, Abdirahman Adala, told journalists that three al-Shabab members were killed in the operation by Somali forces. But he said extremists had placed explosive materials in a nearby home that killed civilians.

Somalia’s government last year launched what the president called “total war” on al-Shabab, which controls parts of rural central and southern Somalia and makes millions of dollars through “taxation” of residents and extortion of businesses.