Air strikes killed at least 33 suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, in the first such action since a massive attack on the army, local officials said on Saturday.
The sources said that 27 were killed and 55 wounded in air raids which residents said were carried out by U.S. warplanes on positions in a mountainous area of Al-Bayda province, south of the Yemeni capital.
“They were new recruits, youths from the region, taken by surprise by the raids which struck as they were dining in training camps” on Friday night, one official said, on condition of anonymity.
The raids hit three villages west of the provincial capital, also called al-Bayda -- al-Makhnaq, al-Dooqi and al-Mamdud, the sources said.
On Saturday, Yemeni planes raided the southern province of Abyan, killing six militants, a local official said. He said positions near Jaar, 12 kilometers (seven miles) from the militant-held town of Zinjibar, were hit.
The air strikes were the first since a massive March 4 attack on an army camp in Abyan province claimed by the jihadists' Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that cost the lives of 185 soldiers.
Residents said the raids in al-Bayda were carried out by U.S. aircraft, but the accounts could not be immediately verified.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the jihadist network took advantage of a protracted anti-government uprising last year to seize large swathes of the south and east.
Washington has long made Yemen a major focus of its “war on terror” and the U.S. Defense Department has provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and training designed to help Yemeni special forces counter AQAP.
Two of the raids, launched from around 9:00 pm (1800 GMT) and lasting around three hours in total, struck the homes of Ahmed and Ali al-Humaiqani, two residents of Wadi al-Makhnaq, witnesses said.
Wadi al-Makhnaq has an al-Qaeda training camp, one local resident told AFP.
“Several armed men arrived in multiple vehicles, along with two trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition boxes, and attended Friday prayers in Wadi al-Makhnaq,” said the resident, who declined to be identified.
Islamist militants, some of them al-Qaeda loyalists, launched a major offensive in al-Bayda province in January, that brought them just 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital, the closest they have reached.
That month, around 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters swept the town of Rada and overran it within hours, holding it for nine days before withdrawing under pressure from Yemen's powerful tribal leaders.
AQAP has exploited the decline in central government control that accompanied bloody nationwide protests last year that eventually forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
The violence in the south highlights one of the many challenges that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi faces as he tries to stabilize Yemen after a year of political upheaval that ousted Saleh after three decades in power.
On Monday, Hadi vowed to pursue militants linked to al-Qaeda to their last hiding place.
Islamist fighters control the city of Zinjibar in southern Abyan province, where ensuing clashes with government forces has forced much of the population to flee.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warned on Friday that Yemen is facing a new wave of internal displacement as tens of thousands of civilians flee tribal clashes in the north and fighting between the government and militants in the south.
It said that in the past two weeks alone, 1,800 people have been displaced by the latest escalation in fighting between government troops and militants in the Abyan governorate.
UNHCR said it wants $60 million in 2012 for some 216,000 refugees and almost half a million displaced people in Yemen.