SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen said senior al Qaeda militants were targeted in Thursday’s air strike in al-Bayda province, the first government statement on an incident which local officials said killed 15 people on their way to a wedding.
The local officials had said a wedding party was hit in the strike in the south of Yemen after being mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy, and five people were also injured.
The government’s statement, issued late on Friday, made no mention of the wedding or civilian casualties.
“An air strike was carried out at about 4:30 in the afternoon of (Thursday), targeting a car belonging to a leader,” an official of the government’s security committee was quoted as saying in the statement carried by the state news agency.
In the vehicle “were a number of al Qaeda leaders and members who were among the most high-ranking and who had been involved in planning terrorist operations”, the statement said.
The statement did not say who carried out the air attack. The U.S. military targets Islamist militants in Yemen with drone strikes, but does not comment on the practice.
A senior government official from al-Bayda province said on Saturday a government delegation had met tribal leaders in the area and promised an investigation into the attack. He said the government promised to compensate families if the investigation showed some of those killed were civilians.
The United States has stepped up drone strikes in Yemen as part of a campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), regarded by Washington as the most active wing of the militant network.
Khabar, a private news agency, posted a video that it said showed hundreds of people surrounding the bodies of those killed in the attack. A tribal leader and witnesses who had been at the scene confirmed the authenticity of the video.
“Every time, (President) Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi says we’ve mistaken (the target),” said an elderly man, addressing the crowd. “This was a wedding ... the American planes struck them.”
Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told Reuters in September the drone strikes were a “necessary evil” and a “very limited affair” that happened in coordination with the Yemeni government.
Drone attacks have killed several suspected AQAP figures, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamist militant who orchestrated plots to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
U.S. officials credit the use of drones for paring back the territory under AQAP control. Human Rights Watch said in a report this year that U.S. missile strikes had killed dozens of civilians.
Stabilizing the country, which is also struggling with southern separatists and northern rebels, is an international priority due to fears of disorder in a state that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.
On Monday, missiles fired from a U.S. drone killed at least three people travelling in a car in eastern Yemen.
In a separate development, al Qaeda-linked militants attacked a military site in the southeastern Hadramout province, a local official and residents said.
The two sides traded fire but no figures on casualties were immediately available, the official said.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Alison Williams