SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni war planes struck at the house and farm of a Yemen-based Al-Qaeda leader today in the latest action in a government offensive against the militants, a security official said.
Sanaa declared war on Al-Qaeda last week as pressure mounted on it to crack down on the global militant group after its Yemen-based wing said it was behind an attempt on December 25 to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane.
"The home of the terrorist Ayed al-Shabwani was targeted in an air raid today, but until now there are no details on the result of the raid," a Yemeni official told Reuters.
It was not known if Shabwani was in the house in Maarib Province east of Sanaa at the time.
Shabwani was one of six Al-Qaeda militants the government had previously said died in an air strike last week. Al-Qaeda later denied any of its members had been killed.
Western powers and neighboring Saudi Arabia worry Yemen could turn into a failed state and fear Al-Qaeda could exploit the ensuing chaos to strengthen its foothold in the poorest Arab country and turn it into a launch pad for further attacks.
Yemen, hunting Al-Qaeda in several provinces, is also fighting a northern Shi'ite insurgency and faces separatist sentiment in the south.
Yemen has occasionally been hasty in announcing the deaths of militants. The death of another militant, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Yemen reported last month might have been killed in an air strike, was never confirmed.
A local government source in Shabwa Province later said officials were in talks with tribal sheikhs to try to persuade Awlaki to surrender, or be taken by force.
Yemen gained a reputation as an Al-Qaeda haven after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and came under the spotlight after crackdowns on the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan raised fears Yemen was becoming a training and recruiting center for militants.
Washington is considering giving the Pentagon expanded powers to build up security forces in Yemen and other countries seen as emerging havens for Al-Qaeda, defense and congressional officials have said.
The proposed U.S. changes under consideration would give the Pentagon new authority to train and equip a wider range of security forces, among them special counterterrorism units controlled by Yemen's Interior Ministry.
Critics say the internal security and intelligence services that could receive the support were human rights abusers and that an expanded Pentagon role risked fuelling anti-American sentiment and boosting Al-Qaeda's standing.
A new report by a U.S. Senate committee said that some U.S. citizens suspected of training in Al-Qaeda camps in Yemen, including dozens who converted to Islam in prison, may pose a serious threat to the United States,
Two groups of Americans based in Yemen are causing concern for U.S. counterterrorism experts in the Gulf region, according to the report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. The report was prepared for release at a committee hearing today on Al-Qaeda and Yemen.
Most worrisome is a group of up to 36 former U.S. criminals who converted to Islam in prison and arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic, the report said.
Some members of the group have disappeared and it is feared they were "radicalized in prison and traveled to Yemen for training," the report added.
A UN Security Council sanctions committee on January 19 added Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing and two of its leaders to a UN blacklist, which U.S. envoy Susan Rice said would help efforts to weaken the group.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its two leaders, Nasser al-Wahayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, who were among 23 militants who escaped from a Sanaa jail in 2006, now face mandatory global asset freezes and travel bans, she said.
The group espouses a militant Sunni Islamist ideology and has threatened attacks on Westerners to cleanse the Arabian Peninsula of "infidels" and seeks the fall of the U.S.-allied royal family in oil superpower Saudi Arabia.