SANAA, Yemen » An American drone strike in southern Yemen has killed seven al-Qaida-linked militants, including the media chief for the group’s Yemeni branch and the son of a prominent U.S.-born cleric slain in a similar attack last month, government officials and tribal elders said today.
In the capital, meanwhile, forces loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters, killing at least nine and wounding scores, according to medical officials and witnesses.
The airstrike late Friday in the southeastern province of Shabwa points to Washington’s growing use of drones to target al-Qaida militants in Yemen. The missile attacks appear to be part of a determined effort to stamp out the threat from the group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have said is the terror network’s most active and most dangerous branch.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry identified the slain media chief as Egyptian-born Ibrahim al-Bana. Tribal elders in the area also said the dead included Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, the 21-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a gifted Muslim preacher and savvy Internet operator who became a powerful al-Qaida recruiting tool in the West. He, along with another propagandist, Pakistani-American Samir Khan, were killed in a Sept. 30 U.S. drone attack.
The tribal elders, who spoke today on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, said four other members of the al-Awlaki clan also were killed in the drone attack. There was no immediate confirmation of the younger al-Awlaki’s death from Yemeni authorities.
Security officials said the strike that killed them was one of five carried out over night by an American drones on suspected al-Qaida positions in Shabwa and the neighboring province of Abyan in Yemen’s largely lawless south.
The first strike late Friday targeted a house in the Azan district of Shabwa, but hit just after al-Qaida militants had a meeting in the building, security officials and tribal elders said.
They said a second strike then targeted two sport utility vehicles in which al-Bana and the six others were traveling, destroying the vehicles and leaving the men’s bodies charred. It was not clear whether other participants in the meeting were targeted in separate strikes.
AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil roiling Yemen. Saleh, who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, has been struggling to stay in power in the face of eight months of massive street protests demanding his ouster and the defection to the opposition of key aides and military commanders.
Militants linked to AQAP have taken over several cities in the south, raising fears that they could establish a permanent stronghold in this strategically located nation. Yemen is located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and the oil-producing nations of the Gulf. It also overlooks strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal.
In a separate development, the security officials said suspected al-Qaida militants bombed a key underground gas pipeline that extends from the Balhaf area in Shabwa to an export terminal on the Arabian Sea. The Friday night attack started a massive fire, with columns of flames illuminating the night sky.
The security officials said non-Yemeni employees of the French company running the gas field and pipeline in Balhaf have been evacuated to Sanaa aboard three helicopters for their safety. They had no more details.
In Sanaa, the medical officials and witnesses said forces loyal to Saleh opened up on the protesters with assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns. They said at least 180 people were wounded. The wounded were ferried to hospital in ambulances and on motorbikes. Gunfire could be heard in the area of the clashes well into the afternoon.
In the Hassaba area of northern Sanaa, anti-regime tribesmen and forces loyal to saleh were trading mortar shells and rocket propelled grenades. The fighting, which began overnight, killed one person and wounded six, all civilians.