ADEN: At least 12 Al-Qaeda militants, including one wanted by the United States, were killed in a drone strike in southern Yemen, a tribal leader said in what he called one of the biggest US strikes against the group.
Residents said the unidentified drone attacked the militants overnight who were travelling in two vehicles east of the city of Lawdar in Abyan province, apparently after a meeting of local Al-Qaeda leaders.
The tribal leader in the area told Reuters that at between 12 and 15 people were killed in the attack, including at least four leaders or prominent figures in a local Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
One of them was identified by local tribal leaders as Abdel-Munem Al-Fatahani, wanted by the United States for alleged links to attacks on the US destroyer Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker in 2002, tribal sources said.
Fatahani had survived at least two previous assassination attempts in recent years, they said.
A spokesman for Al-Qaeda confirmed the strike but said only three members were killed and two were wounded. There was no immediate comment from Washington.
Residents said no civilians were hurt in the strike.
"This can be considered as one of the biggest American strikes because it targeted a large number of Al-Qaeda leaders at the same time," the tribal leader, who declined to be identified, told Reuters by telephone.
"Unlike in previous attacks, this one seems to have achieved its goals and, unlike previous attacks, it did not result in civilian casualties."
Some previous attacks have caused large numbers of civilian casualties. In one of the deadliest strikes in late 2009, more than 40 civilians, including women and children, died in an air strike which Washington said targeted Al-Qaeda.
US, Saudi Arabia worried
Al-Qaeda militants have regrouped in the rugged mountains of Yemen after successive blows in Saudi Arabia and Iraq over the past few years. They exploited months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule last year to broaden their control on swathes of territories in Yemen’s south.
The United States has repeatedly used drones in Yemen to attack militants from Al-Qaeda, described by CIA Director David Petraeus as "the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad".
Last September, Petraeus said in a prepared testimony for a joint House-Senate intelligence committee hearing that AQAP was behind the December 2009 plot to blow up a US airliner as it approached Detroit and a 2010 effort to send bombs hidden in computer printers on two cargo aircraft.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been deeply worried about the expansion of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
This month, dozens of militants swept through a small town, about 170 km (100 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa, with little resistance.
The group quit the town of Radda a few days later, but the move raised concerns that protracted political upheaval in Yemen over the fate of outgoing Saleh was giving Al-Qaeda a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
An opposition-led government has been set up in Yemen after Saleh agreed in November to transfer authority to his deputy ahead of presidential elections in February.
But protests have continued and activists are pressing on with demands that Saleh be tried for alleged killings of demonstrators and that the government is purged of members of his family.
The United States has scored major success in previous strikes. In September, a US drone killed US-born cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, described by US officials as "chief of external operations" for Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
In October, two teenage relatives of Awalaki were among 24 people killed in an air strike in southern Yemen, sparking angry reactions by members of the powerful tribe.