SANAA, Yemen Three al Qaeda militants were killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in southern Yemen, Yemeni security officials said, the fourth such attack this week and a sign attacks from unmanned aircraft are on the upswing in the country.
The officials said the three men were hit as they were riding in a Land Cruiser in el-Manaseh village on the outskirts of Radda in Bayda province. Dozens of local al Qaeda-linked fighters protested the drone strikes after traditional Islamic Friday prayers.
Earlier this week another suspected U.S. drone strike killed two militants in Radda itself, Yemeni security officials say, and seven were killed in two other strikes in the southeastern province of Hadramawt. Four suspected drone strikes a week is uncommon in Yemen.
According to statistics gathered by the Long War Journal before Saturday's attacks, the United States "is known to have carried out 41 airstrikes" this year against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the group's branch in Yemen is known. That makes for an average of around three to four strikes per month.
The Journal, a product of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that was founded by former U.S. officials, says that since December 2009, the CIA and the US military's Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 54 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, excluding Saturday's suspected attack.
AQAP overran entire towns and villages including Radda last year by taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted the country's longtime ruler. Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of the southern region but al Qaeda militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces that have killed hundreds.
Also on Saturday, two gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed an intelligence officer in the southeast, security officials said. They said that the officer, Mutea Baqutian, was on his way to work in Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province, when the men stopped his car, gunned him down, and fled.
The government has blamed al Qaeda militants for similar assassinations of several senior military and intelligence officials this year. The bullet-riddled body of Major al-Numeiry Abdo al-Oudi, deputy director of the security department of al-Qitten in Hadramawt, was found in the town's suburbs last week. He had been kidnapped earlier in the month.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity according to regulations.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Seif, who is commander of Yemen's central military region, said the Defense Ministry has deployed an infantry brigade in the northeastern province of Marib to stop armed tribesmen who maintain cordial ties with al Qaeda from attacking oil pipelines and power generating stations, as well as to counter al Qaeda militants.
State TV meanwhile aired a meeting between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and eight Yemeni sailors who were rescued last week by forces of Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region after being held for nearly three years by Somali pirates.
The Puntland government says that its forces captured the hijacked Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1 on Sunday after a siege that lasted two weeks. They freed the eight Yemeni sailors together with five Indians, two Pakistanis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese and a Filipino. The ship was hijacked March 29, 2010.
Hadi congratulated the eight sailors for their safety and ordered the government to compensate them for their suffering.
Eqbal Yassin, a relative of one of the freed sailors, told The Associated Press that the hijackers had allowed some sailors to phone their relatives and convey the pirates' demand for $5 million ransom. He said he was told by his relative that the hijackers killed a Yemeni sailor who tried to escape. He gave no further details.