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Yemeni diplomat: Yemen can carry out airstrikes against al Qaeda

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Terror war focus in Yemen
  • NEW: U.S. official: Extremists mentioned "the Nigerian" while discussing operations
  • Yemen won't need support from U.S. airstrikes, Yemeni foreign minister says
  • Strikes would be in retaliation for botched attempt to blow up airliner landing in Detroit
  • Suspect in attack, a Nigerian, claimed to have extremist ties, said bomb acquired in Yemen

(CNN) -- Airstrikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen will be carried out only by the country's armed forces, the Yemeni foreign minister said Wednesday.

Asked whether the country would need support from U.S. airstrikes, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told CNN, "No, we don't need that."

However, Yemen will "need the technical and the intelligence information to undertake these attacks," he said.

After Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab's alleged attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight December 25 -- an action that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claims it organized -- the United States and Yemen are now looking at fresh targets in Yemen for a potential retaliation strike, two senior U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday.

AbdulMutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, is accused of attempting to detonate an explosive as the flight was approaching Detroit, Michigan. He claimed to have extremist ties and said the explosive device "was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used," a federal security bulletin obtained by CNN said.

A U.S. government official said that between August and October, extremists in Yemen were discussing operations and mentioned a person called "the Nigerian." The source said that U.S. intelligence officials also had a partial name for the person: Umar Farouk.

The two senior officials who spoke of the potential retaliation strike asked not to be not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information.

U.S. special operations forces and intelligence agencies, and their Yemeni counterparts, are working to identify potential al Qaeda targets in Yemen, one of the senior officials said. This is part of a new classified agreement with the Yemeni government that the two countries will work together and that the U.S. will remain publicly silent on its role in providing intelligence and weapons to conduct strikes.

Officially the U.S. has not said it conducted previous airstrikes in Yemen, but officials are privately saying the Yemeni military could not have carried out the strikes on its own.

By all accounts, the agreement would allow the U.S. to fly cruise missiles, fighter jets or unmanned armed drones against targets in Yemen with the consent of that government.

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  • Yemen
  • Al Qaeda
  • Terrorism

The AQAP group in Yemen has said that the attempted attack on the airliner was in retaliation for airstrikes against it on December 17 and 24.

Mohammed al-Basha, the spokesman for Yemen's Embassy to the United States, said that claim is "unfounded" and "most likely" propaganda. However, he left open the possibility that links could emerge.

"I think the al Qaeda statement that came out recently saying that this is an attack in retaliation for what happened the 17th and 24th of December is unfounded, because we know that he [AbdulMutallab] bought the ticket a few days before that," al-Basha said Tuesday.

The United States has launched at least one strike on Yemeni territory before. In November 2002, a missile launched from a U.S. drone killed six suspected al Qaeda operatives, including one person that U.S. officials said helped carry out the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen's port of Aden two years earlier.

The attack was the first-known strike at al Qaeda outside Afghanistan since the terror network's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. But a recent report by a Washington-based think tank found Yemen's government "paid a heavy price politically" for the attack, and that undermined the government's willingness to tackle al Qaeda.

The report was written by counterinsurgency experts Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security. They argue that efforts to target al Qaeda in Yemen between 2001 and 2003 were largely successful, but the United States now needs a variety of tools -- including development aid and diplomatic pressure -- to put a lid on the network's resurgence in Yemen.

On Wednesday, al-Qirbi insisted the December 17 and 24 airstrikes were carried out by Yemen.

"These are Yemeni armed forces attacks," he said. "They were of course supported by American intelligence and by the training of the Yemeni armed forces."

Al-Basha acknowledged that the United States has provided assistance to Yemen since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

U.S. officials say they have provided intelligence on AQAP targets to Yemen's government, but won't say whether U.S. aircraft or drones have taken part in strikes.

U.S. intelligence concludes there are several al Qaeda training camps similar to those established in other countries where one or two dozen fighters at a time train. The U.S. and Yemen are also looking into the possibility that AbdulMutallab trained at one of the camps.

One of the camps was among the targets in each set of airstrikes this month.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.