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Originally published Thursday, December 24, 2009 at 10:17 PM

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Yemen carries out airstrikes against al-Qaida

The Yemeni government said it carried out airstrikes Thursday on a suspected gathering of al-Qaida operatives, and it indicated a cleric tied to the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, may have been among those killed.

Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The Yemeni government said it carried out airstrikes Thursday on a suspected gathering of al-Qaida operatives, and it indicated a cleric tied to the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, may have been among those killed.

"Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault" before dawn on a compound in the southern part of the country, according to a statement Thursday by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric who communicated with the Fort Hood shooter before the attack last month and praised the carnage afterward, is among those who "were presumed to be at the site," the Yemeni government statement said.

Al-Awlaki, 38, is a U.S. citizen who was born in New Mexico and was tied to mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before fleeing to Yemen in 2002. His sermons have been cited as a major source of motivation to terrorism suspects tied to a series of disrupted plots in the United States and abroad.

In Thursday's strike, Yemeni warplanes hit the gathering in Rafd, a mountain valley in Shabwa province.

The top leader of al-Qaida's branch in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, were believed to be at the meeting, Yemen's Supreme Security Committee said.

Yemen's deputy defense minister, Rashad al-Alaimy, told Parliament on Thursday that three important leaders were killed, but he did not identify them.

Media reports in Yemen indicated that up to 30 al-Qaida figures were killed in the operation, conducted by the Yemeni military with U.S. intelligence support.

Some accounts indicated that strike was directed at a house owned by the al-Awlaki family about 400 miles southeast of the nation's capital, San'a, but that the cleric's presence was not confirmed. U.S. military and intelligence officials said it was unclear whether al-Awlaki was at the site, let alone among those injured or killed.

"If they did get (al-)Awlaki, he was a bad guy," said a U.S. military official.

Al-Awlaki was little known beyond counterterrorism circles until last month, when it was revealed that he had communicated via e-mail with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan. The psychiatrist has been charged with 13 counts of murder after gunning down fellow soldiers in a rampage months before he was scheduled to deploy to the war in Afghanistan.

After the attack, a posting attributed to al-Awlaki on his Web site applauded Hasan's actions, saying the soldier was "a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people."

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Al-Awlaki's teachings are suspected of influencing five men convicted last year of planning a shooting attack at Fort Dix, N.J., and were found among the possessions of accomplices in the suicide bombing of the London transportation system in 2005.

The statement from the Yemeni Embassy said the strike was aimed at "scores of Yemeni and foreign al-Qaida operatives" believed to be plotting attacks inside the country. Among them were Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the suspected al-Qaida leader in the region, and his alleged deputy, Saeed al-Shihri.

In a separate operation, 25 suspected al-Qaida members were arrested Wednesday in San'a, the Interior Ministry said. Security forces set up checkpoints in the capital to control traffic flow as part of a campaign to clamp down on terrorism.

At the prodding of the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni military has escalated its campaign against militants in recent months.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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