Yemen officials: US airstrikes hit al-Qaida area

1 / 2
Protestors sit on the ground holding umbrellas as they listen to a sermon during Friday prayers as they gather to demand the trial of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, March 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni military officials said Sunday that U.S. aircraft carried out four airstrikes in a southern province where al-Qaida-linked militants control several key towns.

Two military officials said the airstrikes targeted Khanfar Mountain near the town of Jaar in Abyan province, where al-Qaida is in control.

There was no comment from U.S. officials.

In the past, U.S. warplanes have targeted leaders and facilities of al-Qaida in Yemen, considered one of its most dangerous branches. On Saturday, Yemeni officials said U.S. airstrikes killed at least 18 al-Qaida-linked militants in the province of Bayda. Yemeni military officials attributed that attack on the U.S., saying the Yemeni military does not have the capacity to carry out nighttime airstrikes. The Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Al-Qaida has taken advantage of a year of internal turmoil to take over parts of southern Yemen. They took control of Jaar last spring and have successfully battled the Yemeni military, expanding their reach north to the neighboring province of Bayda.

The uprising in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, eventually led to the ouster of longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once a partner in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen.

U.S. leaders have since thrown their support behind the newly inaugurated Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He has said that fighting al-Qaida is one of his top priorities, along with restructuring the army and installing new commanders in the south, where officials said Saleh loyalists may have even struck local deals with the militants.

There was no word on casualties from the airstrikes on Sunday, but residents said they could see smoke rising from the area.

A military official said Yemeni airstrikes near the southern city of Jaar a day earlier wounded nine al-Qaida-linked militants and destroyed several military vehicles the group seized in a bold attack on an army base last week.

In that attack, al-Qaida militants sneaked across the desert at dawn to the back lines of Yemeni forces, killing nearly 200 troops and dumping their bodies in the desert.