ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Air strikes in southern Yemen killed about 30 suspected al Qaeda members on Sunday, local tribal sources said, in the second day of strikes against militant targets in the country.
On Saturday an air strike killed 10 al Qaeda militants and three civilians in central Yemen, a country that neighbours top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most lethal wings.
The defence ministry said Sunday’s early strikes targeted a remote mountainous region of the south. Its website quoted an official source on the High Security Committee as saying that they were based on information that “terrorist elements were planning to target vital civilian and military installations”.
Similar wording was used to justify Saturday’s strike, in which three nearby civilians were also killed.
Local and tribal sources later told Reuters that another strike hit a car carrying suspected al Qaeda militants in the southern Shabwa province, killing five of them, late on Sunday.
The official source quoted by the defence ministry did not specify the nature of the air strikes, saying only that the strikes happened in the framework of “efforts the Yemeni government is exerting to combat terrorism”. But local sources have said unmanned drone aircraft had been seen above the target areas beforehand.
The United States acknowledges using drone strikes to target AQAP in Yemen, but it does not comment on the practice.
Local tribal sources said about 25 bodies had been transferred from the sites of Sunday’s first attacks to nearby towns. They said at least three separate strikes had taken place after dawn prayers, all targeting al Qaeda camps.
The official source said the militants targeted were among the “leading and dangerous” elements of al Qaeda and were of different nationalities.
Eyewitnesses said they had seen al Qaeda militants dragging dead bodies and some wounded people out of the area.
U.S. drone attacks have killed several suspected AQAP figures, including, in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamist cleric accused of links to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
U.S. congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, said AQAP posed “probably the greatest external threat to the homeland itself”.
“And so I think the fact the administration now is going aggressively against these terrorists ... is a very positive sign,” said McCaul, appearing on the Sunday morning ABC News programme “This Week”.
U.S. officials credit the drone strategy for the fact that AQAP is no longer able to control territory in Yemen as it did in 2011. But critics, including some Yemenis and U.S. politicians, say the strikes and civilian casualties are increasing sympathy for AQAP and resentment against America.
Saudi Arabia also watches AQAP with concern, since the branch was founded by citizens of both countries and has sworn to bring down its ruling al-Saud family.
An online video has been circulating with AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhaishi addressing a large gathering of fighters in an undisclosed mountainous region of Yemen and vowing to attack the United States.
Yemen has been fighting AQAP but the group, which has attacked military targets, tourists and diplomats in the country and taken over territory for long periods, is proving hard to defeat.
Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Washington; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Eric Walsh