U.S. Airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen

Updated at 12:05 a.m. Eastern time

CBS News has confirmed that U.S. warplanes made airstrikes yesterday on suspected al Qaeda positions in Yemen.

Officials say the strikes were requested by the government of Yemen and were intended to head off terrorist attacks in that country. The targets might have included the U.S. Embassy. Yemeni officials say at least 34 militants were killed.

Witnesses, however, put the number killed at over 60 and said the dead were mostly civilians, including women and children, The New York Times reported in its online editions late Friday. They denied the target was an al Qaeda stronghold, and one provincial official said only 10 militant suspects died.

The United States has repeatedly called on Yemen to take stronger action against al Qaeda, whose fighters have increasingly found refuge here in the past year. Worries over the growing presence are compounded by fears that Yemen could collapse into turmoil from its multiple conflicts and increasing poverty and become another Afghanistan, giving the militants even freer rein.

Part of al Qaeda's strategy has been to move the terrorist groups' Arab militant fighters out of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to Yemen.

It was reported last week that the man in charge of that relocation was likely killed in a U.S. drone attack in northwest Pakistan.

Reports of the likely death of Saleh al-Somali, a Somali-born key al Qaeda operational planner, in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Pakistan Tuesday prompted at least one knowledgeable Arab diplomat in the country to describe him as "a lynchpin in al Qaeda's well-considered new strategy."

According to the diplomat who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity, al-Somali's responsibilities included plotting al Qaeda's attacks and plans beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

"Since the summer of 2008, I believe he was involved with planning to shift some of al Qaeda's Arab fighters to Yemen" - the conservative state in the Arabian peninsula alongside Saudi Arabia's southern border, where al Qaeda has pushed an increasingly violent insurgency in the past year.

The diplomat said that between one-quarter to one-third of al Qaeda's units in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are now led by non-Arabs, in a transition from "100 percent of these units which were once led by Arabs."

He said militants from the central Asian former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were now either "holding permanent or temporary charge of these units," as some of al Qaeda's most hardened fighters head out of the region for Yemen, which he described as "their new frontier."
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