SANAA (Reuters) - An air strike in Yemen targeting al Qaeda missed its mark and killed a mediator, prompting members of his tribe to blow up an oil pipeline in clashes that followed, a provincial official said Tuesday.
Separately, a Yemeni government official said a U.S. couple taken hostage by tribesmen were released Tuesday, a day after they were seized near the capital Sanaa.
A Yemeni website aligned with the opposition said the strike was carried out by a drone, a weapon that Yemen is not believed to have. U.S. forces have used drones in the past in Yemen, but a U.S. diplomat declined to say if Washington was involved.
The strike could heighten anti-U.S. sentiment and broaden al Qaeda’s appeal among powerful Yemeni tribes, threatening efforts to stabilize a country neighboring oil power Saudi Arabia and busy international shipping lanes, analysts said.
The botched bombing of a U.S. airliner on December 25, claimed by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, spurred Washington to step up security help to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government, which faces grave challenges apart from militancy.
The mediator, seeking to persuade al Qaeda members to surrender, was killed in the pre-dawn strike on his car in the mountainous Maarib province that also killed three other people.
“Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Maarib, was killed with a number of his relatives and travel companions in an air strike targeting the Wadi Obeida area, where al Qaeda elements are present,” the provincial official said.
Monday, armed tribesmen kidnapped two U.S. tourists near Sanaa and demanded the release of a relative jailed over a land dispute that was before the courts.
“The Americans have arrived at the interior ministry building in Sanaa,” a government official told Reuters.
Authorities had set up road blocks and arrested dozens of members of the kidnappers’ families to pressure the abductors.
Another official told Reuters that authorities had promised to look into the kidnappers’ demand.
The air strike provoked clashes between the army and members of Shabwani’s tribe, and the tribesmen attacked the pipeline that ferries crude oil from Maarib, east of the capital Sanaa, to the Red Sea coast, the official said.
Clashes with the mediator’s tribe spread from the countryside to Maarib town, where dozens of tribal gunmen opened fire on government buildings, a local official said.
Security officials said angry tribes blocked a main road to Sanaa, stopping trucks carrying cooking gas and petrol.
“Many of the tribes have become increasingly hostile to the Saleh government, and AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) have done a better job than some al Qaeda affiliates elsewhere in making inroads into the local population,” said Shadi Hamid, a deputy director at the Brookings Doha Center.
“There is more of an indigenous character to the group, more of a Yemeni character. So it would not be surprising if this incident feeds into more latent support for AQAP,” he added.
The United States and Saudi Arabia want Yemen, which is trying to end a conflict with Shi’ite rebels in the north while separatist sentiment bubbles over in the south, to focus its efforts on fighting al Qaeda, seen as a greater global threat.
Yemen declared war on al Qaeda after the failed December attack, stepping up air strikes on the group, which has vowed attacks against Western targets in the oil-exporting region.
A statement from a top Yemeni security body expressed sorrow for Shabwani’s death and called him a martyr, without saying who carried out the strike or what type of aircraft was used.
A U.S. diplomat would not discuss the attack. Washington backed Sanaa’s fight against al Qaeda by training Yemeni forces, sharing information and providing equipment, and recognized al Qaeda in Yemen was a threat to both countries, he said.
“So we are working together. The Yemeni forces always take the lead in operations carried out in Yemen using some of that support that we have provided for them through training and information sharing,” the diplomat said.
Asked directly if the United States was involved in the strike, he said: “If you want operation-specific details you need to contact the Yemeni government.”
Yemen and U.S. military targeted al Qaeda figures in Yemen, where Osama bin Laden’s father was born, after the September 11, 2001, attacks. A CIA drone fired a missile that killed al Qaeda’s leader in Yemen in 2002.
The latest strike had likely intended to hit Ayed al-Shabwani, an al Qaeda leader whose farm in Maarib province was the target of a strike in January, the provincial official said. Shabwani is a relative of the mediator who was killed.
Shipping companies said there was no impact on exports from the attack on the pipeline, which ferries crude to the Ras Isa offshore export terminal. Authorities could not immediately reach the affected area.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in London, and Simon Webb and Luke Pachymuthu in Dubai; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Firouz Sedarat; editing by Ralph Boulton