(photo credit: Tour&Smile)
Yemen's military hit suspected al-Qaida hideouts Thursday and targeted a gathering of top militant leaders, possibly killing a radical cleric linked to the US Army major accused of the Fort Hood mass shooting, in strikes carried out with US intelligence help, officials said.
At least 30 militants were believed to be killed in the second such strike in a week. Pentagon officials could not confirm Thursday whether US-born radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was killed in the strike.
Al-Awlaki was born in the state of New Mexico and attended Colorado State University before moving in 2002 to Yemen. The imam reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last month.
Along with Al-Awlaki, the top leader of al-Qaida's branch in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri were also believed to be at the meeting, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said in a statement. The strike "targeted scores of Yemeni and foreign Al-Qaeda operatives," the Yemeni embassy said. Al-Wahishi, al-Shihri and al-Awlaki "were presumed to be at the site," it said.
Hasan has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder in the Nov. 5 shooting spree on the Texas post. It was the worst mass killing on a US military base and also left more than two dozen people wounded.
The newly aggressive Yemeni campaign against al-Qaida is being boosted by a heavy dose of American aid, a reflection of Washington's fears that the terror network could turn this fragmented, unstable nation into an Afghanistan-like refuge in a highly strategic location on the border with oil-rich US-ally Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon recently confirmed it is has poured nearly $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year - compared to none in 2008. The US military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, according to US officials and analysts.
The result appears to be a sharp escalation in Yemen's campaign against al-Qaida, which previously amounted to scattered raids against militants, mixed with tolerance of some fighters in return for vague promises they would avoid terror activity.
The United States has been pressing Yemen for well over a year to take tougher action against al-Qaida, which has steadily been building up its presence in the country.
Yemen's government, which has little control outside the capital, has been distracted by other internal problems. It is fighting a fierce war against Shiite rebels who rose up in the north near the border with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi forces have gotten directly involved, battling rebels who have crossed over into its territory.
Aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama headed to Hawaii, Obama spokesman Bill Burton told reporters: "As we've said previously, the president supports the government of Yemen in their efforts to take out terrorist elements in their country. We continue to support those efforts."
When asked if the US knew this was coming, Burton replied, "I'm not going to comment on those reports."
In the pre-dawn operation, Yemeni warplanes hit what officials called a gathering of senior al-Qaida figures in Rafd, a remote mountain valley in eastern Shabwa province, sparsely populated by small tribal villages, often little more than a collection of tents.
Shabwa is one of three provinces where al-Qaida is believed to have been increasingly gaining refuge among tribes discontent with the San'a government.
Earlier Thursday, Yemen's deputy defense minister, Rashad al-Alaimy, told parliament that three important leadership members were killed, but he did not identify them. He said the strikes were carried out "using intelligence aid from Saudi Arabia and the United States of America in our fight against terrorism."
Mohamed Al-Maqdeshi, head of security in Shabwa, told reporters a number of leaders were killed, but could only confirm a midlevel figure, Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair.
Yemeni officials have said previously that al-Wahishi and most al-Qaida leaders are based in the eastern province of Marib, where tribal enmity against the government is strong and authorities have little entry.
A Rafd resident, Awad al-Daghary, told The Associated Press by telephone that bearded al-Qaida fighters brought the bodies of Omair and three others killed in the strike to al-Daghary's tribe for burial. Two of the bodies were of members of the tribe who had run off to join al-Qaida, he said.
Further strikes Thursday targeted al-Qaida hideouts on the border between Shabwa and neighboring Abyan province, the Supreme Security Committee said in a statement. The committee, headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, oversees operations by the military and security forces.
In a separate operation, 25 suspected al-Qaida members were arrested Wednesday in San'a, the Interior Ministry said. Security forces set up checkpoints in the capital to control traffic flow as part of a campaign to clamp down on terrorism.
The operations were carried out after security officials received information about al-Qaida plans to carry out suicide attacks in the capital San'a against the British Embassy and foreign schools, said Al-Alaimy, the deputy defense minister.