SANAA, Yemen – A U.S. drone strike killed seven suspected al-Qaida members believed to be heading toward a restive province where Yemeni forces have been intensely battling the terror group, Yemeni officials said.
The unmanned U.S. drone targeted a vehicle in the province of Bayda, south of the capital of Sanaa, killing the seven people inside on the spot, according to two Yemeni military officials.
A statement from the Ministry of Defense said only that a jet fired a missile at a vehicle carrying al-Qaida members, destroying it and the people inside. The statement did not clarify whether the strike was American or Yemeni. The discrepancy could not be immediately clarified.
One of the Yemeni officials said the militants were heading to Abyan province where government forces are engaged in ongoing clashes with militants. Yemeni officials said more than 200 militants have been killed in fighting in the province over the last week, as Yemen tries to bring the restive area back under its control.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials, but Washington has carried out deadly airstrikes in Yemen in the past. Last year, an American drone strike killed U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and a second American, Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist.
Witnesses said the strike Saturday turned the vehicle into a charred skeleton along with the bodies of the people inside.
Abdel-Salam al-Ansi said he heard a strong explosion and then rushed outside to the scene.
"The car had been turned into a ball of fire," he said.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots, and the U.S. considers the impoverished country as a key battleground in the war against al-Qaida.
The terror network has had a presence in Yemen for years, but expanded its influence during last year's political upheaval when millions of Yemenis rallied across the country demanding the ouster of their longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh. The militant group seized control of several towns in the south during that time.
Saleh stepped down in February and the new president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has pledged to restructure the Yemeni army and purge it of loyalists to the former ruler in order to combat the terror network.
Al-Qaida has staged several successful assaults on ill-prepared and demoralized troops, but also appears to have suffered some significant defeats.
On Saturday, al-Qaida fighters in pickup trucks attacked a security checkpoint on the outskirts of the southern port city of Aden and killed five troops, said a Yemeni security official. Eight militants also died in the attack.
In another incident, militants kidnapped a senior intelligence officer and two soldiers in the town of Radda south of the capital Sanaa, another security official said.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.