Suspected U.S. drone strikes killed at least seven al-Qaida-linked militants in southern Yemen on Thursday, Yemeni security officials and witnesses said.

The officials say at least three strikes targeted a gathering of militants at a farm outside the town of Jaar, a one-time al-Qaida stronghold.

The officials say the attacks followed tips of an imminent al-Qaida attack on the town.

Resident of the area who came to the site after the attack said they saw vehicles burning, as thick black smoke billowed into the sky and explosions rocked the areas. They declined to be identified, fearing reprisals. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Government forces deployed to the area and the number of the dead could rise since body parts were found but not counted, the officials said.

The strikes come one day after Yemen's Defense Minister Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed's visited Jaar and vowed to hunt down al-Qaida militants in their hideouts.

A U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive in June pushed out al-Qaida from many southern areas the militants seized during last year's uprising. Washington considers the terror network's Yemen branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to be its most dangerous offshoot.

Since the offensive drove them from the towns, militants have sought refuge in nearby mountain areas and retaliated with assassinations of top security and military officials as well as deadly suicide bombings.

Security officials said they believe the movement has a hit list of officials, and wants to paralyze the new government that came to power this year as a result of 2011's popular uprising.