ADEN At least four suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in two air strikes, thought to have been carried out by U.S. drones on vehicles travelling in central Yemen on Tuesday, a Yemeni security source and witnesses said.
The attacks came as Yemeni authorities said they had also arrested 14 al Qaeda militants, including nine foreigners - in the latest sign of a U.S.-backed push to defeat Islamist fighters in Yemen.
The Yemeni security official said the air strikes hit two vehicles travelling in the Bayhan area of Shabwa province - a mostly desert south-eastern region where militants driven from their southern strongholds last month had taken refuge.
Witnesses told Reuters four bodies were pulled out from the wreckage of the first vehicle. The flames were so intense in the second vehicle that no one could approach to check for any casualties.
The Defence Ministry named two of the dead as senior al Qaeda figures, Fahd Saleh al-Anjaf al-Harithi and Hassan Ali al-Ishaqi.
Washington, concerned that al Qaeda was gaining a new foothold in the Middle East, has stepped up drone attacks in Yemen.
A U.N. investigator last month called on the U.S. administration to justify its policy of assassinating rather than capturing militants.
Yemen's Defence Ministry said the 14 arrested militants had been operating in three separate cells and plotting to attack army and civilian leaders as well as foreign interests.
It did not say where or when they were detained. The group included four Egyptians, two Jordanians, a Somali, a Tunisian and a man from Dagestan in Russia's North Caucasus, it added.
Yemeni troops drove Islamist fighters last month out of several towns they controlled in the south as the government pressed ahead with a U.S.-backed offensive to defeat Ansar al-Sharia, a tenacious offshoot of al Qaeda.
The group - meaning Partisans of Islamic Law - has exploited instability in the Arabian Peninsula to gain a foothold in a country that borders Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, alarming the United States.
Separately, a security official said an al Qaeda-linked militant arrested on Saturday night had died from his wounds.
He was among eight militants captured while trying to flee their former strongholds in the southern province of Abyan to the neighboring governorate of Dalea.
Hundreds of militants have been on the run since they were pushed out of Abyan. Ansar al-Sharia swears allegiance to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have called the most dangerous offshoot of the global militant network.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)