Top al Qaeda commander killed in Yemen drone strikes

ADEN (Reuters) - A suspected U.S. drone strike overnight killed a top Islamist militant commander in southern Yemen who had run al Qaeda’s combat operations and had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, residents said.

In nine months of civil war and a Gulf military intervention in Yemen, the United States has kept up a drone campaign there against al Qaeda and increasingly, Islamic State militants, who have continued to carry out attacks.

Impoverished Yemen has suffered fierce fighting and humanitarian crisis since March, when a Saudi-led Gulf Arab coalition began near-daily air strikes to rout the Iran-backed Houthis and restore the central government.

Jalal Baleedi was killed by a drone strike as he was traveling in a car with two others in coastal Abyan province.

According to media reports and some analysts, Baleedi may have recently defected from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become the chief of Islamic State’s Yemen branch.

The U.S. State Department said Baleedi was involved in planning attacks on Western diplomatic targets in Sanaa in 2013 and put a reward of up to $5 million for information that would bring him to justice.

Al Qaeda militants rallied in Abyan capital Zinjibar and planted the group’s black flag on government buildings and setting up checkpoints on main roads and the highway leading to the port city of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Another strike on Thursday killed six al Qaeda militants in a car near al Rawda city in Shabwa province, residents said.

AQAP has taken advantage of the war pitting forces loyal Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Houthi militiamen based in the capital Sanaa to grab territory and operate more openly.

But the group has faced ideological competition from Islamic State, which has siphoned off recruits as it has launched spectacular attacks against Shi’ite Muslim mosques and government targets.

Suspected U.S. drone strikes, which normally use Hellfire missiles, have killed some of AQAP’s top leaders, including its chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi last June.

Separately, pro-Hadi forces backed by heavy Gulf Arab air strikes advanced in the mountains surrounding Sanaa, capturing several villages and attacking a Houthi-held military base.

The clashes in the area of Nehm have killed dozens of people in the last three days, tribal sources said, and bring Saudi-backed Yemeni forces within about 65 kilometers of the capital.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Noah Browning and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Tom Heneghan