SANAA (Reuters) - A U.S. drone killed at least six suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen’s southeastern province of Maareb on Thursday, officials said, the sixth such strike in less than two weeks.
The strike follows Yemen’s announcement on Wednesday that it had foiled a plot by al Qaeda to seize two major oil and gas export terminals and a provincial capital in the east of the country.
The drone killings also come after warnings of potential attacks by militants that pushed Washington to shut missions across the Middle East, and the United States and Britain to evacuate staff from Yemen.
Witnesses and local officials in Maareb, a mostly desert region where militants have taken refuge, said the drone fired at two vehicles suspected of carrying al Qaeda militants at dawn, killing six people.
Residents saw the two vehicles rise in flames and the drones circled the air for a while after the attack.
At least 20 suspected militants have been killed since July 28, when a drone strike killed at least four members of Ansar al-Sharia, a local militant group affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, is one of handful of countries where Washington acknowledges targeting militants with strikes by drone aircraft, although it does not comment publicly on the practice.
U.S. sources have told Reuters that intercepted communication between bin Laden’s successor as al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and the Yemen-based wing was one part of the intelligence behind the alert last week that prompted the closure of the embassies.
Security in Yemen is a global concern. Home to AQAP, considered one of the most aggressive branches of the global militant organization, it shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and the world’s top oil exporter.
The U.S. government supports Yemeni forces with funds and logistical support.
Yemeni authorities issued a statement early on Tuesday listing 25 “most wanted terrorists” it said were planning to carry out attacks in the country during the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday which starts Thursday. They also offered a five million Yemeni riyals ($23,000) bounty for information leading to their capture.
An attack on September 11 last year killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi.
U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN at the weekend that the recent actions taken to close the embassies showed President Barack Obama’s administration had learned lessons from Benghazi.
Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari; Writing By Maha El Dahan; Editing by Catherine Evans