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U.S. drone kills Yemen al Qaeda leader's relative: source

DUBAI (Reuters) - A U.S. drone attack killed a relative of al Qaeda’s leader in Yemen in one of the group’s strongholds in the strife-torn country, a security source said.

The drone struck a district in the southern town of Zinjibar on Thursday evening, killing at least one man called Abdulrahman al-Wuhayshi, residents told Reuters.

A Yemeni security source said the man was related to Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni who leads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the joint Saudi-Yemeni branch of al Qaeda.

Nasser al-Wuhayshi was once Osama bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda has strengthened its hold on remote areas in southern Yemen this year, taking advantage of widespread unrest caused by months of protests against veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia shares U.S. fears that more instability in Yemen could embolden the al-Qaeda wing in a country sitting next to key oil shipping routes.

The security source did not give details of the dead man’s relationship with the al Qaeda leader but said he was not a brother or a member of Nasser al-Wuhayshi’s immediate family circle.

A local official confirmed there had been a drone attack on the town in the southern Abyan province but said he did not know who had been targeted.

There was no word of any death of a leading militant on Islamist websites where al Qaeda often announces such news.

Abyan province saw an upsurge in fighting this week between government forces and Islamists, in which about 50 people were killed, mostly on the Islamist side, officials said.

Three soldiers and six militants were killed in Zinjibar on Saturday during an army operation in the town and eight militants were also killed in an air strike on the nearby town of Jaar, a military source said.

An opposition-led government has been set up in Yemen after Saleh agreed last month to transfer authority to his deputy president ahead of presidential elections in February.

But violence has continued as protesters demand that the government is purged of members of Saleh’s family and that Saleh face trial for the violence of the past 12 months.

Thousands of protesters set off on a 200 km (125 mile) march from the city of Taiz to Sanaa earlier this week to denounce the new government for failing to prosecute Saleh.

Ali al-Emad, a protest organizer in Sanaa, said pro-government thugs had attacked two cars and loudspeakers of protesters in Sanaa who intend to meet the Taiz marchers when they arrive at the edge of the city.

Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Heavens