SANAA (Reuters) - A Yemeni air raid may have killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda’s regional branch on Thursday, and an American Muslim preacher linked to the man who shot dead 13 people at a U.S. army base may also have died, a Yemeni security official said.
Nasser al-Wahayshi, the Yemeni leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri, were believed to be among more than 30 militants killed in the dawn operation in the eastern province of Shabwa, said the official, who asked not to be identified.
U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may also have died in the air strike which targeted a meeting of militants planning attacks on Yemeni and foreign oil and economic targets, he said.
If all the deaths are confirmed, the air strike would appear to have struck a severe blow against AQAP, seen as the most dangerous regional offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s network.
“Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be dead,” the official said of the cleric who was on the run in Yemen, where he was on the government’s most-wanted list of terrorist suspects.
According to U.S. officials, the U.S. army psychiatrist who ran amok at the Fort Hood army base in Texas on November 5 had contacts with Awlaki.
The Yemeni official said one leading figure in AQAP, Mohammed Saleh Omair, was confirmed dead in Thursday’s raid.
The United States cooperates closely with Yemen in combating al Qaeda militancy. Pentagon officials were not immediately available to comment on any U.S. involvement in the raid.
The Yemeni official mentioned only one air strike, which a government website said had taken place at 5 a.m., but Al Arabiya television reported four raids.
Yemen said it had killed about 30 al Qaeda militants and arrested 17 in air strikes and security sweeps a week ago in the eastern province of Abyan and in Arhab, northeast of Sanaa. It said the operations had foiled several planned suicide bombings.
Among them were plans to launch attacks against the British embassy in Sanaa, other foreign interests and government buildings, a Yemeni government website said.
“The operation was in the final stage,” the website said, adding the plans to attack the British embassy were modeled on a failed attack on the U.S. embassy last year.
A Yemeni opposition website quoted sources in Abyan as saying that last week’s raid there had killed dozens of civilians, including 18 children and 41 women and men.
Resurgent al Qaeda attacks have stirred fears that worsening instability in Yemen might enable militants to launch renewed attacks in neighboring oil superpower Saudi Arabia.
As well as fighting al Qaeda militants, Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is battling a separate Shi‘ite rebellion in the north and separatist unrest in the south.
The conflict in northern Yemen drew in Saudi Arabia last month when the rebels briefly occupied some Saudi territory, prompting Riyadh to launch an offensive against them. The rebels accuse Riyadh of backing Sanaa militarily since the war started.
Al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen, where Osama bin Laden’s father was born, announced in January it had changed its name to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- in an apparent attempt to revive the group in Saudi Arabia, where a tough counter-terrorism drive had halted the group’s three-year armed campaign in 2006.
Wahayshi, the new group’s Yemeni leader, threatened attacks against Westerners in the oil-exporting region. AQAP has also called for the overthrow of the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.
“(The) Interior Ministry has ordered its bodies and offices in all governorates to raise security alert and tighten defense procedures at the important facilities and vital interests all over the country in anticipation of any retaliatory operations,” the government website said.
Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee issued a warning to citizens in Shabwa province not to aid the militants.
Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Alistair Lyon/Matthew Jones