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U.S.-aided attack in Yemen thought to have killed Aulaqi, 2 al-Qaeda leaders

U.S. officials said Aulaqi was a member of al-Qaeda and has been moving up the ranks, having recently been promoted to regional commander. But the officials described him less as an operational leader than an inspirational one, whose contacts with members took place largely online.

The Yemen Observer, a paper with ties to the government, reported that Aulaqi's house was "raided and demolished" in Thursday's strike.

But in interviews, Aulaqi's distraught relatives said they have had no official word about the cleric. They said they had spoken with relatives and friends in Shabwa province, the site of the assault, and do not believe that he was among those killed.

The cleric's father, a former Yemeni minister of agriculture, Nasser al-Aulaqi, said his son was living in the home of an uncle and, he believed, had left that residence about two months ago. The uncle's house is more than 40 miles from the attack site, the elder Aulaqi said in a rare interview.

"If the American government helped in attacking one of [its own] citizens, this is illegal," the father said, his voice cracking. "Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and he's going to get a trial. My son has killed nobody. He should face trial if he's done something wrong."

"If Obama wants to kill my son, this is wrong," he said, adding that despite his son's ideology, the younger Aulaqi had no links to al-Qaeda.

It would be highly unusual, though not unprecedented, for a U.S.-backed strike to kill an American citizen. A CIA missile strike by a pilotless aircraft killed Ahmed Hijazi, a U.S. citizen, in Yemen in 2002, in an attack aimed at suspected al-Qaeda members.

Yemeni officials had largely left Anwar al-Aulaqi alone since he gained international attention because of the Fort Hood attacks. In interviews this week before the Thursday attack, officials said the United States has provided little proof for them to take the cleric into custody. But they acknowledged that they had kept a close watch over him.

"He's under scrutiny by our security forces," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubaker al-Qirbi said Monday. "We're looking at this from a legal point of view. From his statements on his Web sites alone, there is a question whether he can be prosecuted on this basis."

Shabwa is a known haven for al-Qaeda militants. Yemeni security and government sources said the dead in Thursday's attack included suspected al-Qaeda members of Yemeni and foreign nationalities, but they would not elaborate. Al-Qaeda here is made up largely of Yemeni and Saudi nationals, according to analysts.

Tribal leaders and eyewitnesses said they buried five al-Qaeda operatives after the assault. Lahmar bin Salfooh, a tribal chief, said all five were from Aulaqi's tribe, which dominates Shabwa province.

In the Fallujah Forum, an online discussion forum for al-Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen, participants said Shabwa residents had noticed yellow-and-green military-style spotter balloons floating above the area in the three days before the strike, said Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert and researcher for the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation. That might have warned Aulaqi and the al-Qaeda leaders at the meeting.

"This may have given these guys the sense that something was going on," Kohlmann said.

Shear reported from Washington. Special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee in Sanaa and staff writers Greg Jaffe, Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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