A major American newspaper is reporting that the U.S. government has intensified its covert war in Yemen in recent weeks, deploying armed drones and fighter jets to attack militant suspects seeking to undermine the shaky Sana’a government.
Citing U.S. officials, The New York Times said that after nearly a year-long pause in American airstrikes, the U.S. has accelerated its campaign in an attempt to keep militants linked to al-Qaida from consolidating power. The attacks are being led by the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Command in close coordination with the CIA.
The report said that last Friday American jets killed a mid-level al-Qaida operative, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen. Weeks before, drones fired missiles aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born Islamic cleric that the U.S. has been trying to kill for more than a year. But he survived the attack.
The heightened campaign comes during a perilous period for Yemen, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh fleeing the country to Saudi Arabia for treatment of severe burns he suffered in last week’s bomb attack on his presidential compound. He authorized American missions in his country in 2009, but placed limits on their scope and publicly has said that all military operations have been conducted by Yemeni troops.
The Times said the U.S. has carried out its attacks in the belief that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula poses a greater threat to U.S. security than the militants hiding in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas next to its border with Afghanistan. The Yemeni group has been linked to the attempt to blow up a transatlantic jetliner on Christmas Day 2009 and last year’s attempt to blow up cargo jets with bombs hidden inside printer cartridges.
U.S. and Yemeni officials say President Saleh suffered injuries from the bomb attack on the presidential compound that are far more severe than first disclosed, raising doubts about his return to power. Saleh was initially said to have received a shrapnel wound, and his vice president was quoted earlier this week as saying the president would return to Yemen within days from Saudi Arabia where he is being treated.
But diplomatic sources say Saleh has burns on his his face, neck and chest. He also is believed to have suffered a serious head injury.
Yemen’s prime minister, his two deputies, the heads of the two houses of parliament and the head of the ruling party’s legislative bloc were all evacuated to Saudi Arabia with severe injuries.
Meanwhile, the unrest that has engulfed the nation for months shows no signs of ending, despite the president’s absence.
Fresh fighting erupted this week in Yemen’s second-largest city, Taiz, where armed opposition tribesmen have occupied a large area in the center of the town. Government forces also clashed with Islamist militants in the southern city of Zinjibar, more than a week after hundreds of militants seized control of the town.
Nearly 400 people have been killed since a popular uprising against Saleh began in January.