A U.S.-born radical cleric is alive and well following reports he may have been killed in a Yemeni airstrike against suspected al-Qaida hideouts, friends and relatives said Friday.
The government said it targeted a meeting of high-level al-Qaida operatives in Thursday's airstrike in the remote Shabwa region. It claimed at least 30 militants were killed, possibly including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who has been linked to the shooter in last month's attack at the Fort Hood military base in the U.S.
On Friday, a friend of the cleric, Abu Bakr al-Awlaki, told The Associated Press he was not among those killed. He refused to say if the cleric was attending the meeting.
Abu Bakr al-Awlaki was in Shabwa and in contact with the gunmen in control of the area following the strike. He is not related to the cleric, but the two are from the same tribe and carry the same last name.
Thursday's airstrikes were the second in a week against al-Qaida and were carried out with U.S. and Saudi intelligence help. The newly aggressive Yemeni campaign, backed by American aid, reflects 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 Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni government said it struck a gathering of senior al-Qaida figures in Rafd, a remote mountain valley in eastern Shabwa province, where they were plotting new terror attacks.
In addition to 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, Yemen's Supreme Security Committee said.
But Yemeni officials still have no access to the area, which is controlled by armed gunmen and supporters of al-Qaida, and could not confirm for certain who was killed in the attack.
Saudi officials were not immediately available for comment on Friday.
In Washington, a U.S. government official who was briefed on the strike told The Associated Press that there has been no confirmation yet of who was killed in the strike. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the attack.
Al-Awlaki was born in the United States and moved back to Yemen in 2002. Al-Awlaki reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.
People close to al-Alwaki said it is unlikely the cleric would be sitting through a field meeting convened by fighters, considering he saw his role as a scholar and one who gives religious advises and rulings.
The cleric's brother, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, said he also received assurances that his older sibling is still alive.
A tribal chief in Shabwa, who used only his alias Abu Mohammed, said he was informed that Anwar al-Alwaki was alive and is unharmed. He refused to elaborate.
So far, residents of the area and relatives of those killed say six bodies have been retrieved from the area of the strike and buried. The relatives spoke on condition of anonymity because they were still at the area controlled by the gunmen.