ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Two Yemeni members of al Qaeda were killed by a missile strike on their car on Sunday, in what residents and the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia group described as a U.S. drone attack.
The Yemeni government called the attack an air strike. Washington and Yemen do not acknowledge U.S. drone attacks on militants in the country, which have taken place regularly for years.
Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda has plotted abortive overseas attacks and is a major concern for Washington, which is waging an assassination campaign against suspected members using drone and missile strikes.
The car was struck in the Wadi Rafad valley in Shabwa province in east Yemen, residents there said.
Yemen’s government and the al Qaeda-linked group both identified one of the men as Fahd al-Qasaa, who escaped from prison in 2005 after being convicted of a role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen’s port of Aden. That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Residents gave the name of the other man as Fahed Salem al-Akdam.
Residents said the aircraft that fired the missile had been sighted in the sky. No one else was travelling in the vehicle or killed in the incident, they said.
The Yemeni government said Qasaa had been on its most-wanted list of militants.
“Fahd was a leading figure in the terrorist organization al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (He) was one of Yemen’s most wanted terrorists,” a statement from the Yemeni embassy in Washington said, adding Qasaa was also known as Abu Hudhayfa.
The authorities have claimed to have killed Qasaa before, but an al Qaeda statement appeared to confirm the death.
“Al Qaeda affirms the martyrdom of the Fahd al-Qasaa in an American attack this afternoon in Rafad,” said a statement sent to Reuters by Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group operating in lawless areas of south and east Yemen.
Yemen’s Defence Ministry said on its website that a third al Qaeda operative was arrested in Aden along with another man.
Yemen descended into disorder last year when an uprising against long-serving leader Ali Abdullah Saleh split the armed force into warring factions.
Militants seized chunks of territory in south Yemen during the uprising against Saleh, a staunch U.S. ally. They killed about 100 Yemeni troops in a single attack near one of those areas in March.
Saleh resigned this year, and the United States wants his successor to unify the armed forces and use them to fight al Qaeda more robustly.
But the covert use of drones has angered the public in Yemen as it has in other countries such as Pakistan, where Washington uses unmanned aircraft to kill its enemies in secret.
The tactic is seen by many residents as a form of extra-judicial execution that also endangers people not directly targeted and risks boosting support for militants.
A Yemeni official said earlier on Sunday that two Belgian nationals of Arab descent could be deported after being detained last month on suspicion of involvement in militant activities.
Ebrahim Bali and Ezzeddine Tuhairi were detained on April 13 at Sanaa’s airport as they tried to enter the country, he said. A Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed the arrest and said Brussels was seeking consular access to them.
“They were arrested on suspicion of planned terrorist activities in Yemen. We are in a process of negotiation with the Belgian government. We expect them to be deported...within days,” the Yemeni official said.
Additional reporting by Tom Finn in Sanaa and Ben Deighton in Brussels; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Peter Graff