* Qaeda leaders among at least 12 militants killed in strike
* Residents say no civilians hurt in drone attack
* Qaeda confirms strike, says only three killed and two injured (Adds three more militants killed in separate clash)
By Mohammed Mokhasaf
ADEN, Jan 31 (Reuters) - At least 12 al Qaeda militants, including four local leaders, were killed in a drone strike in southern Yemen, a tribal chief said in what he called one of the biggest U.S. strikes against the group.
Residents said the unidentified drone attacked the militants overnight who were travelling in two vehicles east of the city of Lawdar in Abyan provice.
The tribal leader in the area told Reuters that at between 12 and 15 people were killed in the attack, including at least four leaders or prominent figures in a local Yemeni branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Residents said no civilians were hurt in the strike.
“This can be considered as one of the biggest American strikes because it targeted a large number of al Qaeda leaders at the same time,” the tribal leader, who declined to be identified, told Reuters by telephone.
“Unlike in previous attacks, this one seems to have achieved its goals and, unlike previous attacks, it did not result in civilian casualties.”
Some previous attacks have caused large numbers of civilian casualties. In one of the deadliest strikes in late 2009, more than 40 civilians, including women and children, died in an air strike which Washington said targeted al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda militants have regrouped in the rugged mountains of Yemen after successive blows in Saudi Arabia and Iraq over the past few years. They exploited months of protests against outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, last year to broaden their control on swathes of territories in Yemen’s south.
One of those killed was identified by local tribal leaders as Abdel-Munem al-Fatahani, who they said was wanted by the United States for alleged links to attacks on the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker in 2002.
But Yemeni officials said Fatahani, who had survived at least two previous assassination attempts in recent years, was only wanted by Yemeni authorities.
A spokesman for al Qaeda confirmed the strike but said only three members were killed and two were wounded. There was no immediate comment from Washington.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, Yemeni security sources said that at least three al Qaeda militants were killed in a clash with government soldiers outside Radda, a small town located 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sanaa which was briefly captured by al Qaeda earlier this month.
The sources said five Yemeni soldiers were injured in the clash, which targeted Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of assassinated U.S. citizen and al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Dahab, who led the assault on Radda, was not hurt in the clash, but tribal sources said five Yemeni soldiers also died.
The United States has repeatedly used drones in Yemen to attack militants from AQAP, described by CIA Director David Petraeus recently as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad”.
In a prepared testimony for a joint House-Senate intelligence committee hearing last September, Petraeus said that AQAP was behind the December 2009 plot to blow up a U.S. airliner as it approached Detroit and a 2010 effort to send bombs hidden in computer printers on two cargo aircraft.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been deeply worried about the expansion of al Qaeda in Yemen.
Al Qaeda militants already control swathes of land in Abyan province and the assault and capture of Radda underscored concerns that protracted political upheaval in Yemen over the fate of Saleh could give al Qaeda’s regional wing a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
An opposition-led government has been set up in Yemen after Saleh agreed in November to transfer authority to his deputy ahead of presidential elections in February.
But protests have continued and activists are pressing on with demands that Saleh, who is in the United States for treatment, be tried for alleged killings of demonstrators and that the government is purged of members of his family.
The United States has scored major success in previous strikes, including the killing of Awlaki, who was described by U.S. officials as “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda in Yemen.
In December, a U.S. drone attack killed Abdulrahman al-Wuhayshi, a relative of AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Wuhayshi was once Osama bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan. Two months earlier, two teenage relatives of Awlaki were among 24 people killed in an air strike in southern Yemen, sparking angry reactions by members of the powerful tribe. (Reporting by Mohammed Mokhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa,; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Mirna Sleiman; Editing by Alison Williams)