By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 17, 2009; 3:32 PM
SANAA, YEMEN -- Yemeni forces, backed by airstrikes, killed at least 28 al-Qaeda militants and captured 17 others Thursday in a pre-dawn assault on an alleged training camp and other areas in this Middle East nation, where al-Qaeda's presence is of growing concern to U.S. officials.
The operation targeted militants planning suicide bomb attacks against Yemeni and foreign sites, including schools, according to a statement on 26Sept.net, a Yemeni Web site linked to the government's military. Several civilians were also apparently killed and homes destroyed, witnesses told local news agencies.
Yemen's government is under pressure from the United States to step up efforts to dismantle al-Qaeda's network in this volatile country, the Arab world's poorest. Thursday's operation was one of the biggest counterterrorism efforts by the nation's weak central government in recent memory.
It has been struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a crumbling economy. In this void, al-Qaeda has steadily grown, using the nation's vast lawless, rugged terrain as a haven. U.S. officials are concerned that al-Qaeda could use Yemen, strategically located in the heart of one of the world's lucrative oil and shipping zones, as a launching pad for attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia and in the Horn of Africa.
Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said that the dead included Mohammed Saleh Al-Kazemi, a leading al-Qaeda figure in Yemen.
President Obama called Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to praise this country's efforts to fight terrorism, saying Thursday's raids "show Yemen's determination to face the threat of Osama bin Laden's global terrorist network of Al Qaeda," according to Yemen's Saba state news agency.
Obama, the agency reported, gave assurances that the United States would support Yemen in the realms of security, politics and development.
It was unclear what role the United States played in Thursday's operations. American drones and operatives have targeted al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, Somalia and the Horn of Africa in the past. When asked by reporters Thursday if the United States was involved in any operations in Yemen, State Department spokesman Robert Wood declined to speak specifically about Thursday's operation, saying "we cooperate with the government of Yemen and other governments around the world in fighting al-Qaeda and others, you know, practicing terrorism."
Thursday's operation targeted the alleged training camp in Al-Maajala, 300 miles south of the capital Sanaa, in the southern province of Abyan, a longtime haven for Islamic jihadists. The attack "led to the killing of between 24 to 30 militants of Al Qaeda, including foreign members, who carried out training," the military statement said.
An opposition Web site, quoting sources in Abyan, claimed that as many as 53 people were killed and that most of the victims were women and children.
The military did not specify the nationalities of those arrested. Nor did it indicate which foreigners were being targeted.
Four would-be suicide bombers were killed in a raid in Arhab district, northeast of Sanaa, and four other militants were arrested, according to the statement. Thirteen other alleged al-Qaeda members were arrested in the capital.
Bin Laden has close ties to Yemen: He married a Yemeni woman, and his father was born here. In 2000, al-Qaeda bombers attacked the USS Cole in the southern city of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. Since then, militants have carried out a string of attacks on U.S. missionaries, foreign tourists and Yemeni security forces. Last year, heavily armed gunmen targeted the U.S. Embassy with a car bomb and rockets. The attack killed 16, including six assailants.