MOGADISHU - A top intelligence official with Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affliated Shebab rebels was killed in a US air strike on Monday, Somalia’s government said.

“In a joint operation last night by the Somali national security and the United States, Al-Shebab intelligence chief Abdishakur, also known as Tahlil, who replaced the recently arrested former chief, was eliminated,” Somalia’s National Security Agency said in a statement Tuesday.

“Two other Shebab members also died in the attack,” it said, adding the air strike took place near the town of Saacow, 320 kilometres (200 miles) west of the capital Mogadishu and in the Middle Juba region.

In Washington, the Pentagon had announced overnight that US war planes had carried out a strike against a senior Shebab leader, but did not give the name of the person targeted.

US military spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, however, that he was confident there were no “civilian or bystander casualties”.

Last week Somali officials announced that Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, identified as a Shebab intelligence chief and the subject of a $3 million bounty as part of the US State Department “Rewards for Justice” programme, had given himself up to government troops and was under arrest.

He was also said to have been close to the Shebab’s previous leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed by a US air strike in September. The statement from Somalia’s National Security Agency said he was now in their custody.

The Shebab, however, said Zakariya had left the movement more than a year ago, before Godane’s death and before Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah was appointed as the new leader, and that he was of little value as a source of up-to-date intelligence.

Despite the claim to have killed the head of Shebab’s feared intelligence wing, known as Amniyat, who is actually in charge of the unit - which is responsible for the group’s internal security and rooting out dissidents and informers - remains unclear.

A militant called Mahad Mohamed Ali, also known as Karate, had previously been identified by intelligence sources as Amniyat chief and had even been tipped as a potential successor to Godane.

Meanwhile, suspected militants opened fire in a town in northeast Nigeria, killing at least 15 people, witnesses and a security source said.

The attack on Monday night targeted Kautikari, near the Cameroon border, just 10 km (6 miles) from the village of Chibok, where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted in April. They remain captives. “The were about twenty, well-armed. They came in four-wheel drive vehicles and some motorcycles. Initially, I thought they were soldiers,” survivor Jonah Umaru said by telephone.

“The man running behind me was gunned down as I was fleeing. Afterwards, there were 15 people lying dead in the streets.”

Suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped 172 women and children and killed 35 other people this month near the same area.

Violence by Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, has killed 10,340 people this year, according to a count by the Council on Foreign Relations last month.

The five-year-old insurgency has also displaced more than a million people from the northeast. It is considered the gravest threat to the stability of Africa’s biggest economy and top oil producer and its neighbours.

Underscoring the regional threat posed by the group, Cameroon’s army said it had killed at least 41 Boko Haram militants as it fought off a wave of attacks along its border with Nigeria over the weekend.

Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told the National Assembly on Tuesday the country is ready to negotiate with Boko Haram but did not know who in the group to address.

“We want this war stopped. If we can talk with them to stop what’s happening in Nigeria, why not,” he said, adding that one objective would be to secure the release of the schoolgirls.

Niger’s southwestern Diffa region, which borders Nigeria’s Borno State at the heart of the insurgency, has seen the arrival of more than 87,000 refugees since May of last year, according to Niger authorities.

Instability in the northeast is likely to undermine efforts to hold Nigeria’s presidential and other elections across the region in February.