34 Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen air strike
Yemeni aircraft killed 34 suspected Al-Qaeda members, including senior leaders, in a dawn raid on Thursday in a remote mountainous region, the second such strike in eight days, security sources said.
"The raid was carried out as dozens of members of Al-Qaeda were meeting in Wadi Rafadh," Shabwa province, one source said, referring to a rugged location about 650 kilometres (400 miles) east of the capital Sanaa.
The head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Saudi Shahrani were present at the meeting, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He added that "members of the group's leadership, including Saad al-Fathani and Mohammed Ahmed Saleh al-Omir, were among those killed."
The source was unable to say what had happened to Wahishi or his deputy, but indicated Omir had recently appeared in a video of a public meeting in Abyan province south of the capital which was later aired by Al-Jazeera television.
"Saudis and Iranians at the Wadi Rafadh meeting were also among the dead," said the source, without going into detail.
A second security source told AFP the raid had been launched after residents had tipped the authorities off about the meeting.
The defence ministry newspaper cited a source in the High Security Council as saying "more than 30" Al-Qaeda members were killed in Thursday's strike.
"Security forces will continue to hunt for terrorists... and thwart their criminal plans," the newspaper's 26Sep.net website quoted the source as saying.
A Yemeni official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP those attending the gathering "planned to launch terrorist attacks against economic installations in Yemen, in retaliation for Yemeni strikes launched last week."
He was referring to coordinated raids against Al-Qaeda on December 17, including an air strike against a suspected training camp in Abyan, in which the government said 34 Al-Qaeda suspects were killed.
A local official and a tribal source said 49 civilians, including 23 women and 17 children, were killed in that air strike. The civilian casualties sparked protests in Abyan and two people were killed by twin explosions after one such protest on Monday.
The defence ministry newspaper said a simultaneous raid by ground forces north of the capital on December 17 killed four suspects and foiled a plot to bomb the British embassy in Sanaa.
The aim had been "infiltrating and blowing up targets including the British embassy, foreign interests and government buildings," the paper's website quoted security sources as saying.
"The operation was in its final phase... A group of eight suicide bombers were to carry out the operation using explosive belts and two car bombs," it added.
Thursday's strike brings the Yemeni government's tally of Al-Qaeda suspects killed in the past eight days to 68.
A White House spokesman told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama to Hawaii for Christmas holidays that the US president backed the Yemeni government's efforts.
"As we've said previously, the president supports the government of Yemen in their efforts to take out terrorist elements in their country. We continue to support those efforts," deputy spokesman Bill Burton said.
However the White House declined to comment on media reports that US-Yemeni imam Anwar al-Aulaqi, who had ties to the army psychiatrist who allegedly gunned down 13 people at a Texas military base last month, may have been among the dead.
"I'm not going to comment on those specific reports," said Burton.
Yemen is Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland and has seen a spate of attacks against Western targets over the past decade.
The United States has a base across the Bab al-Mandab strait in Djibouti from which it runs counter-terrorism operations in the region.
Besides its ongoing efforts against Al-Qaeda, Yemen is also engaged in a conflict with Shiite rebels in the north and violent separatist protests in its south.