Yemen says it killed U.S. cleric in airstrike

WASHINGTON — The Yemeni government said it carried out airstrikes Thursday on a suspected gathering of al-Qaida operatives, and indicated that a radical cleric linked to the shooter at Fort Hood, Texas, may have been among those killed.

"Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault" before dawn on a compound in the southern part of the country, according to a statement issued Thursday by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric who communicated with the Fort Hood shooter before the attack last month and praised the carnage afterward, is among those who "were presumed to be at the site," the Yemeni government statement said.

Al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen who was born in New Mexico and was associated with mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before fleeing to Yemen in 2002. His extremist sermons have been cited as a major source of motivation to terrorist suspects tied to a series of disrupted plots in the United States and abroad.

News reports in Yemen indicated that as many as 30 al-Qaida figures were killed in the operation, which was conducted by the Yemeni military with U.S. intelligence support.

Some accounts indicated that the strike was directed at a house owned by the Awlaki family about 400 miles southeast of the nation's capital, but that the cleric's presence was not confirmed. U.S. military and intelligence officials said it was unclear whether al-Awlaki was at the site, let alone among those injured or killed.

Al-Awlaki was little known beyond counterterrorism circles until last month, when it was revealed that he had communicated via e-mail with Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. The Army psychiatrist has been charged with 13 counts of murder after gunning down fellow soldiers in a deadly rampage months before he was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.

Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton addressed the strikes aboard Air Force One on Thursday, as President Obama headed to Hawaii.

"As we've said previously, the president supports the government of Yemen in their efforts to take out terrorist elements in their country," he told reporters.

When asked if the U.S. knew this strike was coming, Burton replied, "I'm not going to comment on those reports."

The United States has been pressing Yemen for well over a year to take tougher action against al-Qaida, which has steadily been building up its presence in the country.