ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Two mid-level al Qaeda leaders were killed on Thursday in an apparent air strike on their car in a remote province of Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, witnesses said.
Yemen’s Defence Ministry confirmed that two al Qaeda leaders had been killed in a province where the militant network is active, identifying them as two brothers, Musa’id and Abdullah Mubarak al-Daghari. But it gave no details as to how they died.
“The car was passing through the Abdan region in Shabwa province when a missile was fired at it, causing it to explode and burn completely. We learned afterward that two men were inside,” one witness told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Yemen has for three months been embroiled in a standoff between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and pro-democracy protesters bent on forcing him out.
A Gulf-brokered deal to resolve the crisis that would see Saleh eased out within a month collapsed last week when Saleh refused to sign. A government official said on Thursday that talks were still taking place through mediators to get the deal back on the table.
The United States and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, already on high alert after Monday’s killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan, want the political impasse resolved. They fear that a protracted standoff could lead to clashes between rival military units and ignite chaos, which al Qaeda could in turn exploit.
The Defence Ministry said the two brothers, whom it described as dangerous, were killed “while being pursued by security forces seeking to arrest them.” The pair were accused by Yemeni authorities of involvement in recent bomb attacks.
Some nearby residents said they had seen a drone in the air at the time of the killing, and that drones had been seen repeatedly in the area in recent days. Others reported seeing a rocket followed by an explosion on the ground.
A U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in November said the United States was carrying out air raids on al Qaeda targets in Yemen, and that Saleh had agreed to conceal this from the public.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman, asked if Washington was involved in Thursday’s strike, had no immediate comment.
The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed in 2009 from the merger of its Yemeni and Saudi wings, has vowed to bleed U.S. resources with small, cheap attacks that force the West to spend billions of extra dollars on security.
It tried but failed to kill Saudi Arabia’s security chief in 2009 and claimed responsibility for a foiled attempt the same year to blow up a Detroit-bound plane. It was also blamed for bombs found in cargo en route to the United States in 2010.
Yemen declared open war on AQAP in January 2010, stepping up air strikes, in which civilians as well as militants have been killed.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Angus MacSwan