"The secretary-general is concerned about the new dimension this kind of action could introduce to the conflict and the possible escalation of hostilities that may result," a spokeswoman said.

Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, said Rome also opposed "unilateral initiatives that could spark new tensions in an area that is already very destabilised".

Al-Qaeda targeted

Pentagon and state officials have confirmed that US forces carried out an attack on Monday, as part of a wider offensive involving Ethiopian planes aimed at a suspected al-Qaeda cell.

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"Somalia supports the goverment's vision and its values"

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Washington said the group is believed to include men suspected of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in east Africa and a hotel in Kenya.

Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, told The Associated Press that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists had been killed.

He said that at least three US air strikes had been launched since Monday and that more were likely.

Colonel Shino Moalin Nur, a Somali military commander, told The Associated Press that at least one AC-130 gunship had attacked a suspected training camp on a remote island at the southern tip of Somalia. Somali officials said they had reports of many deaths.

A Somali clan elder reported a second U.S. air strike on Tuesday, but that was not confirmed by other sources.

Civilian deaths

A Somali politician said that 31 civilians, including a newlywed couple, had died in an assault by two helicopters near Afmadow, a town near the Kenyan border 350km southwest of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

With the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower now positioned off Somalia's coast, commanders can call in strikes from fixed-wing aircraft such as the FA-18. Defence department officials said that, as of Tuesday, no carrier-based aircraft had conducted strikes in Somalia.

US aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower has
been positioned off Somalia [AFP]
Abdullahi Yusuf, the Somali president, said the US was hunting suspects in the 1998 embassy bombings and had his support.

The country's deputy prime minister said US involvement in the Somalia was confined to air and naval operations but called for US special forces to flush out al-Qaeda suspects.

"The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al-Qaeda terrorists is for US special forces to go in on the ground," Hussein Aideed told The Associated Press. "They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people."

Aideed, a former US marine, said that underground bunkers have been dug in virtually inaccessible areas of the country making it almost impossible to capture them.

African peacekeepers

The UN secretary-general has also called for the speedy deployment of African peacekeepers to the country, and welcomed Ethiopia's statement that it intends to withdraw its forces "expeditiously".

"The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al-Qaeda terrorists is for US special forces to go in on the ground."
Hussein Aideed, deputy prime minister of Somalia
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said he told Ban on Monday that a UN peacekeeping force may be needed to guarantee security and stability in Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 15 years.

Solana said Ugandan forces may be the first deployed to replace Ethiopian troops, but he said the African Union is already carrying a "very heavy" peacekeeping burden in Sudan, and the United Nations may have to step in instead of the AU and take over the next phase.

On December 6, the UN Security Council authorised an African force to protect the transitional government against the Union of Islamic Courts, which had taken control of the capital and most of southern Somalia. The council also committed to training Somali government troops, and lifted a UN arms embargo for the African troops.

The UN spokeswoman was asked by reporters whether the US bombing violated the arms embargo. She said the council would be discussing Somalia on Wednesday and that the UN is trying to gather more information about the action in southern Somalia.