Airstrike kills 15 al-Qaida militants in Yemen

May 2, 2012 - 9:46 AM

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — An airstrike Wednesday killed 15 al-Qaida-linked militants in their training camp in the country's south, Yemeni military officials said. The airstrike resembled earlier U.S. drone attacks, but the U.S. did not comment.

The officials said the air attack targeted the militants' camp north of the town of Jaar in the southern province of Abyan. It coincided with a Yemeni government offensive against the militants.

On Monday, 17 al-Qaida militants were killed in a two-pronged attack by military units and civilians who took up arms against al-Qaida south of the town of Lawder. Two civilians and a military officer were also killed in the fighting.

The Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

For several weeks, the Yemeni military has been on the attack against al-Qaida, after a year during which the militants were largely unopposed in their takeover of cities and towns in the south. This came while Yemen was preoccupied with an internal power struggle, set off by huge demonstrations against longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh that eventually led to his resignation in February

The new government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has made fighting al-Qaida a top priority, but his drive has been hindered by resistance from cronies of Saleh, who are hanging on to key military posts and refusing to step down.

Saleh was long considered a U.S. ally in the battle against al-Qaida, but eventually Washington joined the chorus of opponents demanding that Saleh hand over power. The U.S. has been active against the militants for years, tracking and striking al-Qaida operatives with missiles.

U.S. officials usually don't comment on airstrikes like Wednesday's, but White House counterterrorism official John Brennan acknowledged on Monday that the U.S. carries out attacks using unmanned drone aircraft against specific al-Qaida terrorists, with the cooperation of a local government.

Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen is considered one of its most dangerous and has been linked to several attempted attacks on U.S. targets.

The training camp hit Wednesday was set up around an abandoned munitions factory seized last year by the militants. Then it exploded, killing at least 100 people. The blast was ignited when impoverished townspeople entered the factory in the aftermath to try to haul away anything of value that remained.

Al-Qaida has held Jaar, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) southeast of Sanaa, for the past year. Parts of the provincial capital, Zinjibar, are also under al-Qaida control, but government troops fought their way into the city's center last week.