ADEN (Reuters) - Two apparent U.S. drone attacks killed at least 10 suspected al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen on Saturday, while Yemeni government forces killed 15 others in a new offensive against insurgents, local and military officials said.
U.S. officials said this week they had thwarted a plot by the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to arm a suicide bomber with a non-metallic device, an upgraded version of the “underwear bomb” carried onto an airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
AQAP, a regional branch of the militant network, has plotted overseas attacks that have been prevented but raised major concern for Washington, which is trying to wipe out suspected AQAP operatives with drone and missile strikes.
Two air strikes destroyed three vehicles and killed 10 militants in the eastern oil-producing Maarib province and near the border of the southeastern Shabwa province, the Defense Ministry website said, without elaborating.
Yemen and Washington do not acknowledge U.S. drone attacks.
Local officials told Reuters the strikes were believed to have been carried out by U.S. drones and up to 12 militants were killed, including an Egyptian and two Saudis.
It was the latest in a series of reported drone attacks on militants in the south of the impoverished Arab country who exploited mass protests last year against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large swathes of territory, including Zinjibar, the capital of restive Abyan province.
Last week, the U.S. Defense Department said Washington had resumed training Yemeni armed forces to bolster the fight against al Qaeda, after a suspension during the political upheaval that ousted Saleh.
In a sign of growing lawlessness after more than a year of unrest, Bulgaria’s ambassador to Yemen escaped with minor injuries on Saturday after masked gunmen opened fire on his car in the capital and tried to kidnap him, a Western diplomat said.
Residents said Yemeni air force planes dropped leaflets on Saturday urging civilians to leave areas held by militants targeted by the army offensive, prompting a mass exodus from parts of Abyan.
Fifteen insurgents as well as five soldiers and an army officer were killed in fighting on Saturday, a military official who did not want to be identified told Reuters.
“A force of about 20,000 men is taking part in this offensive, ordered by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to free the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar,” he said. Navy units would also be used in operations along Abyan’s coast on the Gulf of Aden.
Yemen’s fractured state and dysfunctional security apparatus have provided al Qaeda’s regional wing with a suitable breeding ground for bomb plots on Western targets.
But tribal leaders in parts of Yemen where drone attacks aimed at AQAP have killed civilians say the air strikes are turning more and more people against the government and the United States.
Yemen’s army, which split into two factions during the uprising that eventually unseated Saleh, has been battling to get the upper hand against the militants.
In March, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warned that Yemen was facing a new wave of internal displacement as tens of thousands of civilians fled tribal clashes in the north and fighting with militants in the south.
Hadi, who had been Saleh’s vice-president, was elected unopposed in February under a U.S.-backed power transition plan brokered by Yemen’s Gulf neighbors to end the political turmoil. Hadi has vowed to defeat al Qaeda and unify the army.
(This story corrects after Defense Ministry website clarified total of 10 militants killed)
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Tom Finn in Sanaa; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Maria Golovnina