ADEN, March 3 (Reuters) - At least four suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in air strikes in Yemen on Monday, following the deaths of several soldiers in the south of the country, local officials and state news agency Saba reported.
The U.S.-allied country which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia has been raked with lawlessness and violence since 2011, when mass protests forced long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
State news agency Saba said armed men set upon the soldiers in a pair of ambushes, killing six, after the soldiers had foiled a mortar and rocket propelled grenade attack on a gas pipeline in the southern Shabwa province.
It said 14 other soldiers were wounded in the ambushes between Mayfa‘a and Radoum districts in Shabwa. The agency did not identify the attackers but the government often blames Islamists linked to al Qaeda for trying to sabotage the country’s infrastructure.
Local residents said a U.S. drone later targeted a vehicle travelling in the area and killed two of its occupants.
Local officials said two more suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in another drone strike in the Maarib province, an oil-producing area in central Yemen where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates.
The United States has stepped up drone strikes as part of a campaign against AQAP, regarded by Washington as the most active wing of the network.
Yemen, AQAP’s main stronghold, is among a handful of countries where the United States acknowledges using drones, although it does not comment on the practice.
Tackling lawlessness in Yemen, an impoverished Arabian Peninsula state bordering the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, is an international priority. The United States views Yemen as a front line in its struggle against al Qaeda.
In addition to the al Qaeda threat, Yemen continues to confront demands by southern separatists for independence, and is trying to quell rebels from the Shi‘ite Muslim Houthi movement, which has been on an offensive to extend its control over the north. (Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Toby Chopra)