SANAA/ADEN, (Reuters) – Yemen’s air force killed at least 15 al Qaeda-linked fighters in the south including some of their leaders, a government source said on Saturday, while the U.N. refugee agency warned of a new wave of internally displaced people.
The air strikes late on Friday targeted Bayda, about 267 km (166 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa. Militants have expanded their operations in southern Yemen during months of turmoil that eventually unseated the president.
“A number of vehicles and cars used by al Qaeda were also destroyed,” the source said. The militants were carrying equipment and weapons to launch attacks in Bayda governorate, he said.
Residents said the fighter planes had raided the western outskirts of Bayda town where the Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) militants, who have been fighting Yemen’s security forces since mid-2011, had been based.
“Flames and smoke could be seen rising from the area,” one resident told Reuters by telephone.
Ansar al-Sharia is inspired by al Qaeda but the precise nature of its ties to the global network are unclear, although the Yemeni government says they are one and the same.
Al Arabiya television earlier said Friday’s raid was believed to have been carried out by U.S. planes.
Working with the Yemeni authorities, the United States has repeatedly used drones to attack militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described by CIA Director David Petraeus last year as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad”.
In late January, at least 12 al Qaeda militants, including four local leaders, were killed in a drone strike in southern Yemen, which a tribal chief said was a U.S. attack.
The United States and Yemen’s neighbor and world No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia have been deeply worried about the expansion of al Qaeda in Yemen, where the group controls swathes of land near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
TWO KILLED IN SOUTH
A local security official said two al Qaeda militants were killed late on Friday as they tried to set off a bomb at a security checkpoint at an entry point to the town of Mudiyah in the restive southern province of Abyan.
The violence in the south highlights one of the many challenges that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi faces as he tries to stabilize Yemen after a year of political upheaval that ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh after three decades in power.
On Monday, Hadi vowed to pursue militants linked to al-Qaeda to their last hiding place.
Islamist fighters control the city of Zinjibar in southern Abyan province, where ensuing clashes with government forces has forced much of the population to flee.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warned on Friday that Yemen is facing a new wave of internal displacement as tens of thousands of civilians flee tribal clashes in the north and fighting between the government and militants in the south.
It said that in the past two weeks alone, 1,800 people have been displaced by the latest escalation in fighting between government troops and militants in the Abyan governorate.
UNHCR said it wants $60 million in 2012 for some 216,000 refugees and almost half a million displaced people in Yemen.