By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. forces in Somalia called in an air strike on Thursday that killed five fighters from the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabaab, the latest in a series of U.S. military operations targeting the organisation, the Pentagon said.
The U.S. forces had been advising Ugandan soldiers with the African Union mission (AMISOM) during an operation against an illegal taxation checkpoint when the Ugandans got into a firefight with 15-20 al Shabaab fighters.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said no American forces were wounded on the ground during the incident, which took place west of Mogadishu, the capital.
"U.S. forces were not involved with this firefight. We were nearby but not directly involved ourselves," Davis told a Pentagon news briefing, adding that the American forces were further back from the fighting, acting in an advisory role.
Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's military operation spokesman, denied al Shabaab took any casualties from what he described as a U.S. drone strike.
He also said the U.S. forces, after arriving in armoured vehicles, were repulsed by al Shabaab fighters. "There were no casualty. The U.S. forces retreated," he said.
The United States has about 50 military personnel inside Somalia and has repeatedly targeted the group in recent months, including a strike on a senior al Shabaab leader in April and another on a training camp in March that killed some 150 fighters.
On May 9, U.S. forces were working to advise Kenyan forces and Somali soldiers as they conducted a raid on another illegal al Shabaab checkpoint.
"U.S. forces participated only in an advise and assist role and did not encounter a direct threat in this event," said Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza.
Al Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu by African Union peacekeeping forces in 2011 but has remained a potent antagonist in Somalia, launching frequent attacks in its bid to overthrow the Western-backed government.
The group, whose name means "The Youth," seeks to impose its strict version of sharia, Islamic law in Somalia, where it frequently unleashes attacks targeting security and government targets, as well as hotels and restaurants in the capital.
Al Shabaab was also behind deadly attacks in Kenya and Uganda, which both contribute troops to an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)