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Al Qaeda claims it killed American in Yemen

By Hakim Almasmari, For CNN
updated 3:02 PM EDT, Tue March 20, 2012
Officials said two gunmen killed a U.S. citizen in the Yemeni province of Taiz.
Officials said two gunmen killed a U.S. citizen in the Yemeni province of Taiz.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The victim's employer says the American was not a missionary
  • Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula accused the vicim of spreading Christianity
  • A provincial security head identifies the victim as Joel Shrum
  • The Yemeni government says it killed 14 Islamic militants

Editor's note: Read this story in Arabic.

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Gunmen fatally shot an American teacher in the Yemeni province of Taiz on Sunday, two defense ministry officials said.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network's affiliate in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the killing.

In a text message sent to Yemeni media outlets, the group said the victim was spreading Christianity, calling him one of the biggest missionaries in the country.

But the International Training and Development Center said the victim, whom it identified as "Joel S.," was not a missionary.

"He was an American development worker who had been working in Yemen with his wife and two children since 2010," when he began working for the education center, it said.

Yemen takes a step toward democracy

"Unfortunately Joel S. has been accused of being a part of a proselytizing campaign, but the staff of ITDC, which consists of Muslims, Christians and other religions working together, has continually focused on human development, skill transfer and community development," the center said. "Joel S. was a very professional employee who highly respected the Islamic religion."

Authorities have not said who killed the teacher. The head of security in the province, Mohamed Saidi, identified him as Joel Shrum.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sanaa, said it had heard reports of an American death and was investigating. It did not confirm that an American had been killed.

On Thursday, tribesmen demanding the release of prisoners kidnapped a female Swiss teacher in Hodeida on the Red Sea coast, officials said.

Imprisoned tribesmen are being held in the Hodeida Central Prison for disturbing travelers and creating roadblocks.

In Sunday's attack, two men on a motorcycle fired eight shots at the teacher, who was on his way to work at a Swedish language center in the provincial capital, the defense ministry officials said.

"We are investigating the killing as this is the first of its kind against a western national in Taiz," one of the defense officials said. Neither wanted to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Yemen has been fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for years, with mixed results.

In September, a CIA-operated drone attack in Yemen killed American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the external operations commander and chief recruiter of English-speaking militants for the group.

While the death may reduce al Qaeda's ability to plan attacks, the group still poses a danger and "remains the node most likely to attempt transnational attacks," according to the annual U.S. intelligence community's threat assessment, released in January.

Yemen said Sunday that it had killed 14 suspected militants in the south of the country.

The al Qaeda suspects were killed in the town of Jaar in Abyan when government forces attacked militant hideouts using air raids and tanks, two security officials in Abyan said.

The Yemeni navy also participated in the attack, bombarding Jaar for three hours Sunday morning.

No soldiers were killed in the attacks, three government officials said.

Two security officials in Abyan said that the attacks were carried out by Yemeni forces targeting weapons caches in Jaar.

"The attacks on al Qaeda hideouts will not stop against the terrorists in Jaar until they surrender," one official said.

The towns of Dofas, Zinjibar and al-Kod were also raided by the Yemen air force.

Residents in Jaar said the militants told them to not leave their homes under any circumstances.

"Ansar al-Sharia called out in the morning that anyone leaving their homes will be at risk. The government raids today targeted a number of residential areas," said Salem Juhaif, a resident of Jaar.

Ansar al-Sharia is a separate Islamist militia allied with al Qaeda.

Yemen has been beset by political turbulence since the beginning of last year. Protests led to the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office.

His successor, President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi, declared Saturday that people killed in peaceful protests against Saleh were "martyrs" -- a religious term elevating their status -- and that their families will receive compensation.

People wounded in the protests will be offered health care at the government's expense, his presidential decree said.

CNN's Samira Said contributed to this report.

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