WASHINGTON, Nov 4: A missile fired by a pilotless drone operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency killed six Al Qaeda suspects in Yemen, including a man believed to be responsible for the 2000 bombing of the US destroyer Cole, US media reported on Monday.
Yemeni authorities identified the man as Ali Qaed Sunian al-Harithi, also known as Abu Ali.
They said he was one of six people killed on Sunday when the vehicle they were travelling in was destroyed by a powerful explosion.
The Yemeni government did not say what caused the blast. But CNN television, citing unnamed sources, reported that the vehicle was hit by a Hellfire missile fired from the CIA drone.
According to NBC News, the car had been observed by the drone in the northern province of Marib, about 160 kilometres east of Sanaa, for a period of time before it was attacked.
Secondary explosions were seen after the missile hit the vehicle, indicating there were explosives inside the car, NBC News said.
The five other men, who travelled with al-Harithi, were described as his close associates. The CIA refused to comment on the reports.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said al-Harithi was thought to have been involved in the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole as it refuelled in the Yemeni port of Aden.
Seventeen US sailors died in the attack.
“Needless to say he is an individual who has been sought after as an Al Qaeda member as well as a suspected terrorist connected to the USS Cole. So it would be a very good thing if he were out of business,” he said.
But Rumsfeld declined to comment when asked if the United States played any role in al-Harithi’s death, saying the reports he had received were incomplete.
He said US personnel have shared intelligence with the Yemenis and helped them think through how to deal with Al Qaeda in the country.
Al-Harithi is reported to have served as one of Osama bin Laden’s senior bodyguards and was one of his key lieutenants in Yemen.
A US defence official said al-Harithi was “one of the kingpins” in the attack on the Cole, which was rammed by an explosives-laden boat that blew a hole in its hull.
Yemeni authorities said traces of explosives as well as ammunition, weapons and communications devices were found in the gutted vehicle.
The United States has assembled an 800-member task force in neighbouring Djibouti and aboard ships in the region to pursue suspected Al Qaeda militants in the Horn of Africa region. The lawless border area in eastern Yemen in particular is seen by Washington as an Al Qaeda haven.
Rumsfeld said there was no question Al Qaeda was operating in Yemen, taking advantage of “on the one side the sea and the other side the borders that are sparsely populated.
“We have some folks in that country who have been working with the government, and helping them think through ways of doing things,” Rumsfeld said.
“We shared some information and we think that over time it will be beneficial.”
Although Yemeni forces have received counter-terrorism training from US special forces over the past year, Sanaa has been reluctant to allow US forces to operate in its territory.
However, counter-terrorism cooperation between Sanaa and Washington has improved in the wake of an attack on a French supertanker October 7 that appeared to be modelled on the USS Cole attack, US officials said.
General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the people, weapons and potentially weapons of mass destruction that flow through the Horn of Africa make it a key security concern.
“So we’re very interested in the area and have positioned forces to take appropriate action,” he said.—AFP