SAN'A, Yemen – Yemen's president urged Al Qaeda members Tuesday to "repent" and renounce violence following the weekend attack in which a U.S. Hellfire missile fired from a CIA plane killed the terrorist movement's top operative in the country.
"We call on everyone from among our countrymen who have been entangled in membership of the Al Qaeda organization to repent ... and renounce all means of violence," President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a statement read by a Cabinet minister on national television.
Saleh said that those who "return to the path of righteousness" would be allowed to "return to society as good citizens with rights and obligations."
Yemeni analysts believed the statement was not an amnesty but a signal that Al Qaeda members who surrender would face trial in Yemen and not be turned over to U.S. authorities.
The president, who issued his statement to mark this week's start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, made no attempt to explain the circumstances surrounding Sunday's attack that killed six Al Qaeda members, including Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi.
In Washington, a U.S. official said al-Harethi's car was struck by a Hellfire air-to-ground missile launched from an unmanned Predator.
Al-Harethi had been sought for more than a year as a suspect in the October 2000 bombing attack against USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. He was believed to have been Usama bin Laden's top lieutenant in the country.
Yemen's cooperation with U.S. authorities in the war against terrorism is a sensitive issue in this Arab country, where Al Qaeda is active and the homeland of bin Laden's family.
Islamic militancy has been tolerated here as long as it did not threaten government stability and many in Yemen oppose U.S. support for Israel.
A Yemeni Cabinet statement on Tuesday quoted Interior Minister Rashad al-Eleimi as saying "preliminary information" indicates al-Harethi was among the dead.
But the statement made no mention of the cause of the explosion, adding only that al-Eleimi had submitted an official report to the government on the status of the investigation.
Yemeni officials appeared surprised by the leaks from the United States, and provincial and federal officials wouldn't openly discuss the reports.
Nevertheless, Yemeni officials said privately they had been working closely with the Americans and that Yemeni intelligence began monitoring al-Harethi's movements as soon as his car left his farm in Marib province on the day of the attack.
Another official said Yemeni intelligence had been monitoring al-Harethi's farm for months.
Tribesmen in Marib province said a Yemeni air force helicopter was hovering above the area moments before the explosion.
In Mexico, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh criticized the operation, saying suspected terrorists should be treated according to due process of law.
"If the U.S.A. is behind this with Yemen's consent, it is nevertheless a summary execution that violates human rights," Lindh told the Swedish news agency TT. "If the U.S.A. has conducted the attack without Yemen's permission it is even worse. Then it is a question of unauthorized use of force."