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Drones kill another top Yemen al Qaeda figure

SANAA, Yemen -- A U.S. airstrike has killed the media chief for al Qaeda's Yemeni branch along with six other militants, Yemen's government and security officials said Saturday, in the second high-profile American missile attack in as many weeks to target the terror group.

Tribal elders say the son of slain, prominent U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was also among the dead.

Saturday's strike, which follows the killing of al-Awlaki in a similar American missile attack late last month, points to Washington's growing use of drones to hit al Qaeda militants in Yemen.

The targeted attacks appear to be part of a determined effort to stamp out the threat from the group, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have said is the terror network's most active and most dangerous branch.

The slain media chief, identified as Egyptian-born Ibrahim al-Bana, was killed along with the six other militants in the southeastern province of Shabwa on Friday night, Yemen's Defense Ministry said in a statement released Saturday.

Al-Bana is described by a Yemeni official who spoke to Reuters as one of the most dangerous militants in Yemen.

Security officials said an American drone carried out the attack, which was one of five overnight strikes that targeted suspected al Qaeda positions in Shabwa and the neighboring province of Abyan, in Yemen's largely lawless south. Yemeni officials put the death toll from all five attacks at 24, Reuters says.

The elders, in Shabwa, identified the son as 21-year-old Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki. There was no official confirmation of his death from Yemeni authorities.

The elders, who spoke Saturday on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, had earlier said that five of al-Awlaki's clan were among the seven people killed in the missile attack.

Officials and the tribal elders said the strike followed a meeting of al Qaeda militants in a house in Azan, a district in Shabwa. A missile hit the house after the militants had already left, but a second strike targeted two sport utility vehicles in which the seven were traveling after the meeting.

The two vehicles were completely destroyed and the men's bodies were charred, said the officials and the tribal elders speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. It was not clear whether other participants in the meeting were targeted in separate strikes.

Friday's missile attack came two weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed al-Awlaki, a gifted Muslim preacher and savvy Internet operator who became a powerful al Qaeda tool for recruiting in the West. Killed with him was Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who was a propagandist for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil roiling Yemen, as embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh 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 can establish a permanent stronghold in this strategically located nation. Yemen is in 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 Qaeda militants have 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 lighting the nigh sky and seen from miles away. It was seen by Yemeni officials as retaliation for Saturday's drone attack, Reuters says.

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