Yemen Officials Downplay Report that Radical Cleric Cornered

(CBS/AP)

Updated 3:25 p.m. ET

The Yemeni army destroyed five homes suspected of hiding al Qaeda militants Tuesday as a siege of a southern village entered its second day, but officials denied reports that U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was among those surrounded, the AP reported.

Earlier Tuesday, an unofficial website run by government opponents, Alganob.net, had reported that al-Awlaki had been surrounded.

But the chief municipal official in the area, Atiq Baouda, and the security officials denied that he was in the area under siege. The Yemeni army refused to comment on the operation.


A Yemeni news website reported Tuesday that state security forces had surrounded a group of suspected al Qaeda leaders in a south Yemen village, possibly including American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Alganob.net, an opposition news source in Yemen, said it had received unconfirmed information that al-Awlaki and another senior Saudi figure from the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group were among 25 to 60 men barricaded in the village of al-Houta, Shabwa province.

The report said the security forces had encircled the area and were preparing to storm the suspects later Tuesday. The report could not be independently confirmed by CBS News.

Al-Awlaki, a U.S. and Yemeni citizen born in New Mexico, has inspired a wave of attempted attacks against the U.S. and has become al Qaeda's leading English-speaking voice for recruiting and motivating terrorists. Counter terrorism officials say al-Awlaki, since mid-2009, has become a key operational figure who selects targets and gives orders for AQAP, al Qaeda's branch in northeast Africa.

Shortly after the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner, which officials believe al-Awlaki had a hand in planning, the White House took the unprecedented step of authorizing the CIA to kill or capture him.

Just in case the CIA fails in that mission, the Obama administration is considering filing the first criminal charges against the radical imam, to help bring him to justice should he be captured alive.

The BBC reported Monday that as many as 15,000 civilians have fled the al-Houta area as clashes between security forces involved in an ongoing offensive and militants in the area.

Yemeni forces have told the BBC that as many as 100 suspected al Qaeda fighters are hiding in and around the village.

According to the report, almost all residents of the al-Houta have fled since the fighting began during the weekend.

The apparent offensive comes during a visit by one of President Obama's senior advisers on terrorism, John Brennan, who the BBC says is in the country to discuss a possible U.S. military aid package worth millions of dollars.

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  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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