THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Yemen asserts 34 rebels killed in raid on Qaeda

Dozens of civilians died in offensive, some witnesses say

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / December 18, 2009

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SANA, Yemen - Yemeni forces, backed by air strikes, killed at least 34 Al Qaeda militants and captured 17 others yesterday in a predawn assault on an alleged training camp and other areas in this Middle East nation, where Al Qaeda’s presence is of growing concern to US officials.

The operation targeted militants planning suicide bomb attacks against Yemeni and foreign sites, including schools, according to a statement on 26Sept.net, a Yemeni website linked to the government’s military.

Witnesses and an opposition group put the number killed at more than 50 in the heaviest strike and said the dead were mostly civilians. The witnesses denied that the target was an Al Qaeda stronghold, questioning the government’s assertion that 34 militants had been killed, the Associated Press reported.

Yemen’s government is under pressure from the United States to step up efforts to dismantle Al Qaeda’s network in this volatile country, the Arab world’s poorest. Yesterday’s operation was one of the biggest counterterrorism efforts by the nation’s weak central government in recent memory.

It has been struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a crumbling economy. In this void, Al Qaeda has steadily grown, using the nation’s vast lawless, rugged terrain as a haven.

US officials are concerned that Al Qaeda could use Yemen, strategically located in the heart of one of the world’s lucrative oil and shipping zones, as a launching pad for attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia and in the Horn of Africa.

Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said the dead included Mohammed Saleh Al-Kazemi, a leading Qaeda figure in Yemen.

President Obama called Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to praise this country’s efforts to fight terrorism, saying yesterday’s raids “show Yemen’s determination to face the threat of Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist network of Al Qaeda,’’ according to Yemen’s Saba state news agency.

Obama, the agency reported, gave assurances that the United States would support Yemen in the realms of security, politics, and development. It was unclear what role the United States played in yesterday’s operations. American drones and operatives have targeted Al Qaeda sites in Yemen, Somalia, and the Horn of Africa in the past.

When asked by reporters if the United States was involved in any operations in Yemen, State Department spokesman Robert Wood declined to speak specifically about yesterday’s operation, saying “we cooperate with the government of Yemen and other governments around the world in fighting Al Qaeda and others, you know, practicing terrorism.’’

Yesterday’s operation targeted the alleged training camp in Al-Maajala, 300 miles south of the capital Sana, in the southern province of Abyan, a longtime haven for Islamic jihadists. The attack “led to the killing of between 24 to 30 militants of Al Qaeda, including foreign members, who carried out training,’’ the military statement said.

An opposition website, quoting sources in Abyan, claimed that as many as 53 people were killed and that most of the victims were women and children.

The military did not specify the nationalities of those arrested. Nor did it indicate which foreigners were being targeted.

Four would-be suicide bombers were killed in a raid in Arhab district, northeast of Sana, and four other militants were arrested, according to the statement. Thirteen other alleged Qaeda members were arrested in the capital.

Bin Laden has close ties to Yemen: He married a Yemeni woman, and his father was born here. In 2000, Al Qaeda bombers attacked the USS Cole in the southern city of Aden, killing 17 American sailors.

Since then, militants have carried out a string of attacks on US missionaries, foreign tourists and Yemeni security forces. Last year, a bomb and rocket attack on the US Embassy killed 16, including six assailants.