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Yemen says it airstrikes hit a suspected al-Qaida gathering

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

"Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault" before dawn, according to a statement issued Thursday by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric who communicated with U.S. Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the alleged 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.

Others at the meeting included al-Qaida's regional leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and his deputy, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi and former detainee at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the statement said.

The United States provided intelligence and other support in the strike, a U.S. official said. A U.S. military spokesman declined to comment beyond praising Yemen for its strong stand against terrorism.

News reports in Yemen indicated that as many as 30 al-Qaida figures were killed.

Some accounts indicated that strike was directed at a house owned by the Awlaki family about 400 miles southeast of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, but that the cleric's presence was not confirmed. U.S. military and intelligence officials said it was unclear whether Awlaki was there.

Awlaki 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 extremist sermons have been cited as a major source of motivation to terrorist suspects tied to a series of disrupted plots in the United States and abroad.

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

In a recent interview published on Al-Jazeera's Web site, Awlaki said that Hasan had contacted him as early as December 2008, asking for guidance on the religious implications of killing fellow soldiers.

Hasan "was asking about killing U.S. soldiers and officers," from his first e-mail contact, Awlaki said, according to the Al-Jazeera report. "His question was is it legitimate" under Islamic law.

U.S. authorities have said that Hasan and Awlaki traded as many as 18 e-mails. Authorities have said the FBI was aware of the correspondence before the shooting, but concluded that Hasan's inquiries were related to his research as a psychiatrist.

Information from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post was used in this report.

Yemen says it airstrikes hit a suspected al-Qaida gathering 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 9:55pm]

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