January 31, 2015 / 9:10 PM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 2-Suspected U.S. drone strike kills al Qaeda militants in Yemen

* Residents say strike occurred in desert town in south

* Others report drone crashed in central province

* Hadi backed drone programme before resigning as president (adds residents reporting drone crash)

ADEN, Jan 31 (Reuters) - A suspected U.S. drone strike on a car in Yemen killed three men believed to be al Qaeda militants on Saturday and possibly another drone crashed in a different part of the country, residents said.

The incidents suggest there has been no let up in the U.S. stealth programme against suspected militants despite the resignation of the president who backed the programme.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered one of the most powerful branches of the global militant group and claimed responsibility for deadly shootings in Paris on Jan. 7.

For years, the United States has cooperated with Yemeni security forces to track and bomb AQAP members in the country’s rural badlands - a strategy that rights groups have criticised for causing repeated civilian deaths.

But after Shi’ite Muslim rebels overran the capital Sanaa in September and took over President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s residence earlier this month, he and his cabinet resigned.

Hadi was a staunch defender of the drone programme, and his exit has left the Islamist Houthi rebels, whose motto is “death to America”, the de facto rulers of the country.

U.S. officials have told Reuters the Houthi takeover was depriving them of sufficient intelligence to locate AQAP targets and avoid killing civilians in the attacks.

Saturday’s strike occurred in the remote desert town of al-Saeed in Shabwa province in southern Yemen. Residents told Reuters the dead men were al Qaeda militants.

Separately, residents of the al-Hada district of central Dhamar province told Reuters that a drone crashed in an open area there. It was not immediately clear if it was the same drone that conducted the deadly air strike in Shabwa.

Another drone strike on Monday, the first since Hadi’s resignation, killed two suspected AQAP militants and a sixth grader.

Nineteen U.S. drone strikes killed 124 militants and four civilians in Yemen in 2014, according to the New America Foundation, which maintains a database of drone operations.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Alison Williams

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