SANAA, Mar 10 – Air strikes that residents said were carried out by US warplanes killed 27 suspected Al-Qaeda militants in mountains south of the Yemeni capital, local officials said on Saturday.
“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 local officials said 27 of them were killed and 55 others wounded.
Security sources said earlier that 23 of the suspected Al-Qaeda fighters were killed in the air raids on their positions in a mountainous area of Al-Bayda province.
The raids hit three villages west of the provincial capital, also called Al-Bayda — Al-Makhnaq, Al-Dooqi and Al-Mamdud, the sources said.
Residents said the raids were carried out by US aircraft, but those 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 the country a major focus of its “war on terror”.
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.
“An Al-Qaeda training camp can be found in Wadi al-Makhnaq,” 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 kilometres (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.
Several families have fled Al-Makhnaq in recent days, seeking refuge in nearby villages, fearful of the increasing presence of Al-Qaeda fighters and loyalists near their own village, local sources said.
The jihadists’ Yemen branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), exploited the decline in central government control that accompanied bloody nationwide protests last year that eventually forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
In recent years, the US Defence Department has provided hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and training designed to help Yemen’s special forces counter AQAP.
Al-Qaeda has announced the death of an important regional commander in Yemen who had threatened Western targets and narrowly escaped capture in 2010, a US monitoring group reported on Thursday.
Muhammad al-Hanq died from illness on March 4, AQAP announced in a statement issued on jihadist forums and picked up by the SITE Intelligence Group.