For the second time in a week, Yemen's military hit suspected al-Qaida hideouts, killing at least 30 militants and targeting a gathering of top leaders in a remote mountain valley Thursday in strikes carried out with U.S. intelligence help, officials said.
A radical Muslim preacher linked by U.S. intelligence to a man accused of killing 13 people at a U.S. Army base may be among the dead, a security official told Reuters.
"Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be dead (in the air raid)," said the Yemeni official, who asked not to be identified.
Al-Awlaki had contacts with Maj. Nadal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused in the Nov. 5 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas.
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 U.S.-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 U.S. military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, according to U.S. 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.
Targeting safe havens
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. Fighters have been arriving from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, gaining safe havens with tribes angry at the government and carrying out attacks in Yemen and even across the border in Saudi Arabia.
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. San'a is also struggling with a secessionist movement in the once-independent south as well as trying to deal with rampant poverty.
Aboard Air Force One Thursday 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 U.S. knew this was coming, Burton replied, "I'm not going to comment on those reports."
Senior leaders targeted
In Thursday's 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.
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 believed to be at the meeting, Yemen's Supreme Security Committee said in a statement.
But Yemeni officials said they could not confirm for certain whether the two were there or whether they were injured in the strikes. The officials spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Yemen's deputy defense minister, Rashad al-Alaimy, told parliament Thursday 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."
U.S.-born cleric al-Awlaki may also have died in the air strike, another official told Reuters.
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.
It said more than 30 al-Qaida militants were killed in the strikes.
Alleged training camp
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.
Al-Alaimy, the deputy defense minister, said 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.
Thursday's strikes come a week after warplanes and security forces on the ground attacked what authorities said was an al-Qaida training camp in the area of Mahsad in the southern province of Abyan — the largest assault on al-Qaida in years.
Al-Alaimy told parliament that 23 militants were killed in the strike, including Yemenis, Saudis, Egyptians and Pakistanis. Witnesses, however, put the number killed at over 60 in the heaviest strike and said the dead were mostly civilians.
The central government has little control outside the capital, and many of the tribes that control large parts of the rugged, undeveloped desert nation are angry at San'a and are willing to take in al-Qaida militants. To the frustration of U.S. officials, San'a itself has at times in the past struck deals with individual al-Qaida figures, letting them go free in return for promises not to engage in terror activity.
All those factors have made Yemen an attractive refuge for al-Qaida, and raised U.S. fears that the beleaguered nation could collapse into chaos and become another Afghanistan. Yemen not only lies next to Saudi Arabia and near the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, it overlooks vital sea routes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The country was scene of one of al-Qaida's most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors.