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Yemen Silent on CIA Drone Attack

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Yemen silent on CIA drone attack

U.S. officials say Predator killed al-Qaida leader

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

SAN'A, Yemen, Nov. 5 — The Yemeni government declined to comment Tuesday on widespread reports that a CIA-controlled drone killed six alleged al-Qaida members in the country. “The investigation into the car blast is still under way,” a Yemeni government official told Reuters.

THE UNITED STATES hasn’t officially confirmed the attack, but officials told NBC News and other media outlets that the car carrying the suspects was destroyed by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone that was monitoring the vehicle in the Yemeni desert.

The strike killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. U.S. counterterrorism officials described al-Harethi as al-Qaida’s chief operative in Yemen, one of bin Laden’s longest-serving lieutenants, and a suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole.

One official told NBC News that al-Harethi fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s, followed him to Sudan in the early 1990s, then back to Afghanistan in 1996 before being named al-Qaida’s “chief representative, ambassador” in 1998.

The attack occurred in the northern province of Marib, about 100 miles east of Yemen’s capital San‘a, where al-Qaida is considered active.

Following the attack, the emergency action committee at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen met Tuesday and decided that the embassy will close on Wednesday due to heightened concerns about the safety of U.S. diplomats and facilities in the country.

A ‘TOP TARGET’

In September, Yemen said it would use only its own troops to hunt down al-Qaida suspects, dismissing reports that U.S. forces could launch covert operations in the country against militants believed to have fled Afghanistan.

The official Yemeni news agency, local tribesmen and the U.S. official confirmed the strike killed al-Harethi. Witnesses said they saw an aircraft, possibly a helicopter, in the area. Hellfires can also be launched by attack helicopters and are used by both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have said al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was a top target of their efforts.

Speaking Monday about al-Harethi, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters, “It would be a very good thing if he were out of business.” The CIA declined comment on reports of his death and President Bush ignored a question about the attack after he voted Tuesday in Crawford, Texas.

However, in an interview with CNN, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz essentially confirmed the U.S. role, describing the strike as a “very successful tactical operation.”

FOUGHT IN AFGHANISTAN

Al-Harethi was among hundreds of former fighters who returned to Yemen in the 1990s from Afghanistan, where some fought alongside bin Laden against the Soviet army.

Yemeni officials say al-Harethi went into hiding in 2001 after learning he was wanted for questioning by U.S. investigators in the Cole bombing.

Between August and November of last year, al-Harethi spent months in Hosun al-Jalal, a poor village in Yemen’s Marib province, a region populated by gun-toting tribesmen where government forces venture only with the permission of local chiefs.

Al-Harethi lived in the village along with Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, another al-Qaida suspect wanted in the Cole attack.

A Yemeni security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence agents had al-Harethi’s farm under surveillance for months and relayed information to U.S. forces.

Yemen, bin Laden’s ancestral home, has become a haven for some al-Qaida operatives fleeing the war in Afghanistan.

In the spring, hundreds of U.S. troops were deployed to Djibouti, the tiny African nation facing Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, officials said. The Marine amphibious assault ship USS Nassau recently replaced the USS Belleau Wood in the waters between the two nations.

AL-QAIDA HOTBEDS

Inside Yemen, U.S.-trained Yemeni troops deployed to suspected al-Qaida hotbeds in August.

Among other targets in Yemen are Shaykh Dabwan and Suwaid, described as al-Qaida operatives who plan and provide support to terror operations, and an al-Qaida communications expert known as Miqdad, said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Many al-Qaida operations in Yemen are directed by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, bin Laden’s Persian Gulf operations chief, U.S. counterterrorism officials said.

He is believed to have directed from afar the attack on the USS Cole, when two suicide bombers slammed an explosives-laden boat into the hull of the ship at the port of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors and disabling the vessel.

U.S. intelligence also believes Yemeni-based terrorists linked to al-Qaida conducted an Oct. 6 attack the French oil tanker Limburg. A small boat crashed into the ship and exploded, killing a crewman, blowing a hole in the Limburg’s hull and spilling 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the CIA has used remotely operated Predator drone aircraft to make pinpoint strikes on al-Qaida leaders and conduct reconnaissance.

Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s military chief and a Sept. 11 organizer, was killed in November near Kabul in a joint airstrike by a Predator and U.S. military aircraft.

A Predator targeted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar at the start of the war on Afghanistan, but military lawyers could not decide whether he could be struck, officials have said. Its missiles were ultimately fired near him, but not to kill him. While U.S. policy sets prohibitions on striking heads of state, it is less clear about attempts to kill those with terrorist ties.

In May, a CIA Predator attacked Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar near Kabul, missing him but killing some followers. Hekmatyar had offered rewards for those who killed U.S. troops. The former Afghan prime minister is said by U.S. counterterrorism officials to be loosely associated with al-Qaida.

Since the war in Afghanistan, new concentrations of al-Qaida operatives have emerged in Pakistan’s cities and along a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistani border.

Of those, U.S. officials have acknowledged some successes in hunting al-Qaida in the cities. This year, al-Qaida’s operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, and a Sept. 11 planner, Ramzi Binalshibh, were taken in raids conducted jointly by U.S. and Pakistani authorities. Both are in U.S. custody.

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