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The SEAL team stealthily approached the beachfront house by sea, seizing the unidentified target in a predawn firefight that was the most significant raid by American troops on Somali soil since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
Initial reports in the US media quoted unnamed US officials as saying that the suspect had been captured or killed by US Navy Seals in the pre-dawn raid on a villa.
However, the officials later said that the Seals failed to find the intended target, who was not identified.
Al-Shabab earlier told the BBC that "white soldiers" had arrived by boat in Barawe and rebels had repulsed them, losing a fighter.
The official added that in Barawe the commandos had decided to abort the mission after encountering fierce resistance from al-Shabab fighters.
"The Barawe raid was planned a week and a half ago," a US security official told the New York Times.
"It was prompted by the Westgate attack," added the official, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity.
He was parking outside his house when three vehicles encircled him, his car's window was smashed and his gun was seized before he was taken away, his brother Nabih was quoted as saying by AP.
He added that Liby's wife also saw the attack, describing the abductors as foreign-looking "commandos".