By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The Kenyan military said its warplanes bombed targets held by al Qaeda-linked Islamists in Somalia on Thursday, in retaliation for an attack on a Nairobi mall that killed at least 67 people.
The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) said they destroyed a training camp used by the members of the al Shabaab Islamist group who attacked the Westgate Mall on September 21. A Kenyan drone strike killed two leading members of al Shabaab on Monday.
"This was part of a broader mission by the AMISOM (the U.N.-backed African peacekeeping mission in Somalia), targeting where the Shabaab were training. Those attackers at the Westgate did their training there," Colonel Cyrus Oguna, a spokesman for the Kenyan military, told Reuters.
"We have been monitoring this particular area over a period of time, and we moved in when we got the green light."
The camp had over 300 fighters, many of whom are believed to have been killed or injured, the KDF said in a statement. Oguna said raids on the Islamists' strongholds would be sustained.
Al Shabaab denied there had been any attack.
"No military camp of ours in Somalia was air struck or attacked," Shabaab's senior media officer told Reuters, adding that its fighters had attacked Badhaadhe town in the south.
Kenya's military said the "major aerial offensive" in the Dinsoor region completely destroyed the training camp at Hurguun and at least 4 "technicals" - improvised fighting vehicles - and a weapons store.
"The offensive was a continuation of the Jilib attack in which an al Shabaab Commander, Mr Abdullahi Ali, a.k.a. Ante Ante, and Mr Abdi Fatah were killed," the KDF said, referring to a drone strike on Monday on a car south of the Somalian capital Mogadishu.
Oguna said the pilotless aircraft, at first suspected to have been deployed by the United States, was in fact "a Kenyan drone used as part of its war on Shabaab in the southern regions of Somalia", in a rare admission that Kenya was using its own drones in Somalia.
U.S. drones have been used in recent years to kill several Somali and foreign al Shabaab fighters.
Western nations involved in Somalia worry it could sink back into chaos and provide a launchpad for Islamist militancy despite a fragile recovery after two decades of war ignited by the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia two years ago in pursuit of the rebels, whom it blamed for kidnappings and cross-border attacks, and also to create a buffer zone between al Shabaab and Kenya's porous border with the Horn of Africa country.
The Westgate attack was the worst on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
(Additional reporting by Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Roche)