U.S. drone strikes killed 11 al-Qaeda militants in Yemen on Saturday, according to local officials, as the Yemeni army launched an all-out offensive to retake the southern city of Zinjibar, held for a year by al-Qaeda gunmen.
An hour after a local official in the souther town of Aden said a raid had killed 6 al-Qaeda militants in the area, a tribal chief said five more al-Qaeda militants were killed in a new drone raid near the city of Marib.
“A drone fired two rockets at two vehicles, killing five Al-Qaeda members,” near the village of al-Hosoon, outside the city of Marib, 170 kilometres (100 miles) east of the capital Sanaa, he said.
Other witnesses confirmed the attacks.
The attacks were the latest strikes against militants on the Gulf of Aden who have exploited mass protests against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule to seize large swathes of territory in the south.
Yemen’s army, which split into two factions during the uprising that eventually unseated Saleh, has been battling to get the upper hand against the militants.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based branch of the militant network, has plotted abortive overseas attacks and is a major concern for Washington, which is waging an assassination campaign against suspected members using drone and missile strikes.
A Yemeni military official has said that a “wide offensive” to retake the city of Zinjibar began from three sides and is supported by the air force and the navy.” The official added that Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed is supervising the operation from nearby.
“The defense minister is supervising a military plan to regain control of the city of Zinjibar and (the neighboring town of) Jaar from al-Qaeda gunmen,” the official said.
Two soldiers, including a colonel, were killed in the fighting, while 12 others were wounded, he said.
Six fighters of the Al-Qaeda-linked Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), were also killed in the attack, said a tribal source in Jaar, to where the gunmen evacuate their casualties.
The militants took control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, last May. They also control Jaar and other parts of the province.
Military units also attacked Jaar from the west, the military official said, adding that troops reached the area of Kadama, on the outskirts of the town.
In the morning, air strikes hit Jaar, killing three al-Qaeda gunmen and a civilian, and wounding three civilians, a tribal source said.
The air raids were to pave the way for advancing troops, said another military official.
Yemen’s new president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, vowed last week to intensify the war against al-Qaeda, which has made much of the lawless southern and eastern part of the country a safe haven.
“The war against terrorists has not started yet, and will not be over before we purge every province and village so that the displaced can return home peacefully,” he warned.
Attacks on al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces and suspected U.S. drones have increased lately, including an air raid in eastern Yemen on Sunday that killed jihadist network leader Fahd al-Quso, who was wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.
Quso’s name figured on an FBI list of most wanted terrorists, along with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
U.S. media reported that a Saudi spy, reportedly a “mole” or “double agent,” spent weeks with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and garnered sensitive information that allowed the CIA to launch the drone strike against Quso.
The reports said the “mole” had been ordered by AQAP to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner.
A senior U.S. official told the New York Times the bomb for the attack was sewn into “custom fit” underwear that would have been difficult to detect even in a pat-down at an airport.