Regime targeted Yemen general, cable says

A dissident general involved in a power struggle for control of Yemen was nearly killed last year after Yemeni officials asked Saudi Arabia to bomb his headquarters, according to a classified U.S. diplomatic cable.

Saudi military forces were helping Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh quell a revolt in early 2010 by launching airstrikes against a rebellious Shiite faction known as the Houthis. But on one occasion Saudi pilots aborted a strike when they became suspicious about the target — which turned out to be the headquarters of Yemeni Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a political rival of the president.

Details of the incident were relayed to James B. Smith, the U.S. ambassador in Riyadh, by Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi assistant minister of defense, according to a U.S. cable summarizing the February 2010 meeting. The cable was posted on the Internet by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks in December, but its contents have not been widely reported.

Khalid told the ambassador that the Yemeni government had asked his forces to bomb the site but that the Saudis “sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis,” according to the cable.

Mohsen is a distant relative of Saleh’s who served under the president for years as one of Yemen’s most powerful military leaders. But he has always been seen as a political rival to Saleh, and publicly switched his allegiance last month by joining the swelling public demonstrations calling for Saleh’s ouster.

A senior aide to the general confirmed the version of events described in the cable. “This was not the first attempt by the president and regime to kill him,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The aide said Saleh’s staff gave the Saudis “the coordinates in a way to mislead them.”Mohsen was inside the headquarters at the time, the aide said.

Ahmed al-Sufi, a spokesman for Saleh, denied the allegations and challenged the veracity of the cable. “It has no basis of truth, whatsoever,” he said.

“What do you expect from someone who accused his own brother and uncle of trying to assassinate him?” Sufi said. He was referring to an incident three days ago when Mohsen alleged that pro-government tribesmen tried to assassinate him in the capital.

Raghavan reported from Sanaa, Yemen.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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