The Yemeni army destroyed five homes suspected of hiding al-Qaida militants Tuesday as a siege of a southern village entered its second day, but White House and intelligence officials denied reports that U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was among those surrounded, saying there was no evidence to support the reports.
Government forces have moved into the village of Hawta with tanks and armored vehicles and thousands of people have fled the area to escape the fighting, which is part of the government's U.S.-backed campaign to uproot a 120-man militant cell.
Troops also fired on vehicles of residents fleeing the village and another nearby trouble spot, the city of Lawder, killing two civilians and wounding three others, according local government and medical officials.
Security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media, said the homes that were destroyed were empty.
The governor of Shabwa province Ali al-Hamadi said an al-Qaida sniper wounded a soldier and a civilian on Tuesday as the security officials went further into the village of al-Bareeqa, a few kilometers away from Hawta.
An unofficial website run by government opponents, Alganob.net, reported that al-Awlaki had been surrounded.
But White House and U.S. intelligence officials confirmed to NBC News that al-Awlaki was not in the area under seige. The chief municipal official for the area, Atiq Baouda, also denied the report. The Yemeni army refused to comment on the operation.
Anwar al-Awlaki is the American born cleric who was in communications with some of the 9/11 hijackers prior to the attack. Al-Awlaki was also communicating with US Army Major Nidal Hasan before he allegedly went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood Texas last November, killing 13 service members and wounding 32 others.
Al-Awlaki then moved to Yemen where he became an al Qaeda recruiter, moved up the chain of command to an al Qaeda operative, believed to be responsible for the planning and failed execution of the Christmas day plane bomb attempt over Detroit.
Al-Awlaki is the only American on the US "kill or capture" list of alleged terrorists.
Awlaki also played a key part in the failed terrorist Christmas Day attempt to take down a Detroit-bound passenger jet.
Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemen Embassy in Washington, said the operation was in response to a recent attempted attack on a liquefied natural gas pipeline.
He said the military had surrounded the area and was cutting off access in and out of the town.
"Most likely they'll enter the area in the next 24 hours," Albasha said.
He said the operation has nothing to do with al-Awlaki.
"His hometown is hundreds of miles away," Albasha said.