An AC-130 gunship, like this one shown in an undated photo, attacked a site at the southern tip of Somalia on Monday. ((U.S. Air Force/Associated Press))

Helicopter gunships launchedfresh attacks Tuesday against suspected al-Qaeda members in southern Somalia,a Somali official said, as the Pentagon confirmed at least one U.S. air strike the previous day.

Lawmaker Abdiqadir Daqane told the Associated Press thattheattacks occurrednear Afmadow, a town close to the Kenyan border350 kilometres southwest of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

Witnesses said 31 civilians, including two newlyweds, were killed in the helicopter assault.A Somali Defence Ministry official identified the helicopters as American.

The report could not be independently verified.

Reports of the latest attacks came asa Pentagon spokesman confirmedat leastone previous air strike conducted Monday by an AC-130 gunship in southern Somalia.

But Bryan Whitman would not confirm any of the details of the strike, and he would not say whether the attack successfully killed any specific al-Qaeda members.

It was based on intelligence "that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaeda leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them," Whitman said Tuesday. "We're going to remain committed to reducing terrorist capabilities where and when we find them."

Suspected in embassy bombings

Monday'sair strikeson Ras Kamboni —a remote island near the Kenyan border — werethe first overtAmericanmilitary operationsin the African country since 18 U.S. troops were killed there in 1993.

A local tribal elder told Agence France-Presse that 19 civilians were killed, while witnesses said at least four civilians were killed in a reported second strike that day near Afmadow.

The AC-130 gunship, used extensively in Vietnam,is capable of firing thousands of rounds per minute using its machine guns and cannons,according to the military technology website of the Federation of American Scientists. Sources said many bodies were seen on the ground after the strike, but there is as of yet no confirmation of the identities.

The targets were believed to include the senior al-Qaeda leader in East Africa, and an al-Qaeda operative wanted for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

They are both also believed responsible for a 2002 attack on Israeli tourists in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli aircraft the same day, NBC News reported.

Islamic militia harbouring al-Qaeda: U.S.

The U.S. military said Tuesday it had sent the aircraft carrier Eisenhower to join three other U.S. warships conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday he was not aware of any consultations with Congress before the assault.

The U.S. has believed for years that a group of al-Qaeda operatives has been hiding in Somalia, which has been without effective government since warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Washington had accused the Islamic militia that had controlled Mogadishu until recently of harbouring the al-Qaeda suspects and saw their ouster by Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces as an opportunity to strike, said Willam Arkin, a military analyst and fellow atHarvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"Clearly, the United States synchronized its operations with [the invasion]," Arkin told CBC News on Tuesday.

Response to the attacks so farappears tobe mutedasthe world ponders the legality of such an operation, he added.

"This is the world we live in today," Arkin said."The war on terrorism includes the ability of the United States and other nations to go after terrorists where they are, and the international community seems to turn in the other direction."

With files from the Associated Press