Middle East

Yemen Air Strikes Kill Al-Qaida Militants

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Authorities in Yemen say as many as 30 al-Qaida militants were killed in an air strike Thursday in the eastern part of the country. Among those reported killed were two top leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Unconfirmed reports say another victim was Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric who had contacts with the alleged Fort Hood shooter.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Yemen, the government says 30 suspected al-Qaida militants have been killed in air strikes. Officials say the Yemeni military had American assistance. There is no confirmation yet as to who was killed, but speculation has focused on senior Yemeni al-Qaida figures and the radical imam who has been linked to the Fort Hood gunman, Anwar al-Awlaki.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Cairo. He was in Yemen recently. And, Peter, what do we know about today's assault?

PETER KENYON: Well, it took place in Shabwa province. That's several hundred miles southeast of the Capital, Sanaa. Yemeni officials said the target was believed to be a gathering of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That's a group combining militants from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Now the government says the meeting was intended to plot retaliatory attacks in the wake of last week's air strikes in the neighboring province against other al-Qaida targets. What we don't know yet exactly as how many people died or who they were and how many of them may have been al-Qaida operatives.

Some Yemeni officials have said it's possible that senior operatives were killed. There was even one claim that Anwar al-Awlaki who said he traded email messages with Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, may have also been killed. None of that is confirmed as yet. There are accounts, I should say, from eyewitnesses in the area that say a large number of civilians were killed in the air strikes. So that all needs to be sorted out.

SIEGEL: Peter, when you were in Yemen, did people speak of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as it's called, as a threat to Yemen or aren't there larger problems that the Yemenis face than al-Qaida?

KENYON: When I was there, Robert, the larger problems were the rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, and al-Qaida was mentioned usually third on the list, but well down the to-do list, if you want to put it that way. The government loses control once you get very far outside the capital, and it wasn't willing to take on these al-Qaida operatives is what I was told. At the same time, they're fighting these two other problems.

And now, because of pressure from the West - according to officials, from the Americans, the Saudis and the Europeans - it seems that Yemen has changed its mind and moved al-Qaida higher up the list.

SIEGEL: Peter, when people say that the Yemeni military had assistance from the United States, do we know the extent of that assistance?

KENYON: We do know military aid has jumped dramatically from basically nothing to $70 million. We know that senior officials, including General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, paid visits. A Pentagon official tells NPR that Washington has significantly increased its intelligence sharing with the Yemeni military that includes satellite photographs, voice intercepts, reports on the movements of suspected al-Qaida members. There has been some training provided by U.S. Special Forces. And according to this Pentagon official, the Obama administration is being quite aggressive in taking on al- Qaida not just in Yemen but in a number of countries.

SIEGEL: This was the second incident of air strikes like this in a week. Do people there assume that there'll be still more?

KENYON: Well, analysts have said that in the history guerrilla movements, air power alone as usually not enough. These strikes, if they did hit senior leaders, may well be a significant setback and they should boost the morale among the Yemeni military. But they have ordered the security beefed up at a number of government institutions in Yemen. So, it's unlikely we've heard the last of this.

SIEGEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Cairo. Thank you very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Robert.

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