WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration has intensified air strikes on suspected militants in Yemen in a bid to keep them from consolidating power as the government in Sanaa teeters, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
A U.S. official confirmed to Reuters that a U.S. strike last Friday killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel al Qaeda operative, which followed last month’s attempted strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Citing U.S. officials, the Times said a U.S. campaign using armed drones and fighter jets had accelerated in recent weeks as U.S. officials see the strikes as one of the few options to contain al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
With the country in violent conflict, Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to al Qaeda in the south have been pulled back to Sanaa, the newspaper said.
Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was wounded on Friday and is being treated in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. He appears to have been wounded by a bombing at a mosque inside his palace, not a rocket attack as first thought, U.S. and Arab officials told Reuters.
There were conflicting reports about his condition — ranging from fairly minor, to life-threatening 40 percent burns.
There had been nearly a yearlong pause in U.S. airstrikes after concerns that poor intelligence had resulted in civilian deaths that undercut goals of the secret campaign.
U.S. and Saudi spy services have been receiving more information from electronic eavesdropping and informants about possible locations of militants, the newspaper said, citing officials in Washington. But there were concerns that with the wider conflict in Yemen, factions might feed information to trigger air strikes against rival groups.
The operations were further complicated by al Qaeda operatives’ mingling with other rebel and anti-government militants, the newspaper said, citing a senior Pentagon official.
The U.S. ambassador in Yemen met recently with opposition leaders, partly to make the case for continuing operations in case Saleh’s government falls, the newspaper said.
Opposition leaders have told the ambassador that operations against al Qaeda in Yemen should continue regardless of who wins the power struggle in the capital, the Times said, citing officials in Washington.
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been linked to the attempt to blow up a transatlantic jetliner on Christmas Day 2009 and a plot last year to blow up cargo planes with bombs hidden in printer cartridges.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Vicki Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney