* Qaeda leaders among at least 12 militants killed in strike
* Residents say no civilians hurt in drone attack
* Qaeda confirms strike, says only three killed and two
(Adds three more militants killed in separate clash)
By Mohammed Mokhasaf
ADEN, Jan 31 At least 12 al Qaeda
militants, including four local leaders, were killed in a drone
strike in southern Yemen, a tribal chief said in what he called
one of the biggest U.S. strikes against the group.
Residents said the unidentified drone attacked the militants
overnight who were travelling in two vehicles east of the city
of Lawdar in Abyan provice.
The tribal leader in the area told Reuters that at between
12 and 15 people were killed in the attack, including at least
four leaders or prominent figures in a local Yemeni branch of al
Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Residents said no civilians were hurt in the strike.
"This can be considered as one of the biggest American
strikes because it targeted a large number of al Qaeda leaders
at the same time," the tribal leader, who declined to be
identified, told Reuters by telephone.
"Unlike in previous attacks, this one seems to have achieved
its goals and, unlike previous attacks, it did not result in
Some previous attacks have caused large numbers of civilian
casualties. In one of the deadliest strikes in late 2009, more
than 40 civilians, including women and children, died in an air
strike which Washington said targeted al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda militants have regrouped in the rugged mountains of
Yemen after successive blows in Saudi Arabia and Iraq over the
past few years. They exploited months of protests against
outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, last year to broaden
their control on swathes of territories in Yemen's south.
One of those killed was identified by local tribal leaders
as Abdel-Munem al-Fatahani, who they said was wanted
by the United States for alleged links to attacks on the
U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker in 2002.
But Yemeni officials said Fatahani, who had survived at
least two previous assassination attempts in recent years, was
only wanted by Yemeni authorities.
A spokesman for al Qaeda confirmed the strike but said only
three members were killed and two were wounded. There was no
immediate comment from Washington.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, Yemeni security sources
said that at least three al Qaeda militants were killed in a
clash with government soldiers outside Radda, a small town
located 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sanaa which was briefly
captured by al Qaeda earlier this month.
The sources said five Yemeni soldiers were injured in the
clash, which targeted Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of assassinated
U.S. citizen and al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Dahab, who led
the assault on Radda, was not hurt in the clash, but tribal
sources said five Yemeni soldiers also died.
U.S., SAUDI ARABIA WORRIED
The United States has repeatedly used drones in Yemen to
attack militants from AQAP, described by CIA Director David
Petraeus recently as "the most dangerous regional node in the
In a prepared testimony for a joint House-Senate
intelligence committee hearing last September, Petraeus said
that AQAP was behind the December 2009 plot to blow up a U.S.
airliner as it approached Detroit and a 2010 effort to send
bombs hidden in computer printers on two cargo aircraft.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been deeply worried
about the expansion of al Qaeda in Yemen.
Al Qaeda militants already control swathes of land in Abyan
province and the assault and capture of Radda underscored
concerns that protracted political upheaval in Yemen over the
fate of Saleh could give al Qaeda's regional wing a foothold
near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
An opposition-led government has been set up in Yemen after
Saleh agreed in November to transfer authority to his deputy
ahead of presidential elections in February.
But protests have continued and activists are pressing on
with demands that Saleh, who is in the United States for
treatment, be tried for alleged killings of demonstrators and
that the government is purged of members of his family.
The United States has scored major success in previous
strikes, including the killing of Awlaki, who was described by
U.S. officials as "chief of external operations" for al Qaeda in
In December, a U.S. drone attack killed Abdulrahman
al-Wuhayshi, a relative of AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi.
Wuhayshi was once Osama bin Laden's personal aide in
Afghanistan. Two months earlier, two teenage relatives of Awlaki
were among 24 people killed in an air strike in southern Yemen,
sparking angry reactions by members of the powerful tribe.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mokhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari
in Sanaa,; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Mirna Sleiman; Editing by