SANA'A // The Yemeni government said yesterday that its forces killed more than 30 suspected al Qa'eda militants in a dawn raid in a remote mountainous region of Shabwa province, about 650km east of the capital, Sana'a. However, local sources said the strike had killed only seven people and wounded two militants.
Salem al Ashlah, secretary general of the local council in al Saeed, said there were no civilian casualties, adding that the targeted area is rugged and mountainous without any non-militants living there. The attack is the latest strike in the country's recently stepped-up campaign against the terror network. Also yesterday, Yemeni troops killed seven people in a raid on the home of a Shiite rebel leader in Matammah in Al-Jawf province, north of the capital, and the air force struck al Houthi rebel positions in the same area, Agence France-Presse reported
Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to have been among those killed in the Shabwa strike, according to government officials. This could not be verified by local sources. Sheikh al-Awlaki had contact late last year with US Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychiatrist who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas in November. The Yemeni government's supreme security committee said in a statement yesterday that Nasser al Wahishi, head of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Saeed al Shihri, a Saudi national and his deputy, were present at the meeting. It also could not be confirmed if they were among the casualties.
Saleh Saeed Addaghari, Mohammed Fadhl Addaghari, Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair and Mohammed Abdullah bin Daha were among the killed militants, a relative of one of the men said. "The tribe of the four men received their bodies and buried them today," the relative, who asked not be identified, said, adding that Omair was a senior member of al Qa'eda who influenced the other three and took them in his car to the Shabwa meeting.
The militants, according to the government statement, were plotting a series of attacks targeting Yemeni and foreign interests as well as security and military leaders in retaliation of last week's attack against an al Qa'eda training camp and hideouts in Sana'a and Abyan. Yemeni authorities have said they launched military raids against al Qa'eda training camps in the Abyan village of al Maajala, 480km south-east of Sana'a, and in Arhab district, 60km to the north-east of Sana'a.
Government officials said as many as 34 suspected militants, including four would-be suicide bombers hiding in Arhab, were killed in the attacks. Local sources said the raid in Abyan killed more than 60 civilians, mainly women and children, which sparked angry protests in the south. Rashad al Alimi, deputy prime minister for defence and security affairs, told the parliament on Wednesday the British Embassy in Sana'a was one of the planned targets of al Qa'eda militants killed in Arhab last week.
Mr al Alimi said the government had no choice but to confront al Qa'eda and try to refute international reports that have depicted Yemen as a safe haven for the group. He added the fight against terrorism and the eradication of extremism was a national emergency. He also apologised for the civilian killings and said Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, had appointed an investigative committee to look into the attacks.
Abdulellah Haidar, a Yemeni journalist who specialises in al Qa'eda issues, said such government strikes will only serve the group in the long run. "These attacks will be a driving force for al Qa'eda to join hands with the citizens. Al Qa'eda is coming to the surface and defending the people's issues as people will feel now that there is not anyone who can retaliate for them and their victims better than al Qa'eda," Mr Haidar said.
"The civilian casualties were high last week and today the strike is targeting a tribal region ... with the growing anti-government sentiments in the south and also against the US for its involvement in these attacks ... I expect that the southern regions might turn into another Waziristan. "I think Yemen will witness unprecedented security looseness, and this will be in favour of al Qa'eda," he added.
On Wednesday, Mr al Alimi for the first time accused al Qa'eda of the kidnapping of nine foreign aid workers in the northern province of Sa'ada in June. The government has long blamed al Houthi rebels for their abductions. Three aid workers' bodies have been found, but the fate of the rest is unknown. Al Qa'eda also carried out a suicide attack that killed four South Korean tourists in March, and it has claimed responsibility for killing a Yemeni criminal investigation officer in November in the tribal province of Mareb, which is believed to be the main base for al Qa'eda in Yemen.
Abu Bakr al Qirbi, the Yemeni foreign minister, is to visit the United States next month to discuss co-operation on "security and fighting terrorism", the defence ministry said on its website yesterday. The ministry said Mr al Qirbi will hold talks with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other US officials. The US has poured nearly US$70 million (Dh257.1m) in military aid to Yemen this year, a massive financial infusion aimed at eliminating the expanding al Qa'eda safe havens in that country.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by the Associated Press