Sana’a - A drone strike on Saturday killed 15 al-Qaeda
suspects and three civilians in Yemen's central Baida province, a stronghold of
the extremist group, a security official said.
The jihadists were travelling in a vehicle towards the
southern Shabwa province, witnesses said. The three civilians were passing by
in another car.
The US is the only country that operates drones in Yemen,
but officials rarely discuss the covert programme.
Last month, Yemen's President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi defended
the use of drones against al-Qaeda in his country, which has killed dozens of
militants in a sharply intensified campaign over the past year.
Drone strikes "have greatly helped in limiting al-Qaeda
activities, despite some mistakes, which we are sorry about," Hadi told
the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.
The drone programme has come under criticism from human
rights activists concerned over civilian casualties.
The UN said 16 civilians were killed and at least 10
wounded when two separate wedding processions were targeted in December.
The victims had been mistakenly identified as al-Qaeda
members, it quoted local security officials as saying at the time.
Following the deaths, Yemen's parliament voted for a ban
on drone strikes, but analysts say lawmakers are unlikely to be able to halt
the US campaign.
The US has defended the drone campaign, which allows it
to target al-Qaeda without the use of ground forces in lawless areas where
authorities cannot or will not act against the group.
Militants regularly attack security forces from hideouts
in the mountainous terrain of Baida.
Suspects shot dead
On Tuesday, al-Qaeda suspects shot dead the province's
vice governor and an intelligence officer.
Tribal sources in the region claim a recent video of al-Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi welcoming 19 militants
who escaped a Sana’a prison was filmed between Shabwa and Baida.
Addressing scores of jihadists in the rare video appearance,
Wuhayshi pledged to pursue the war against Western "crusaders"
In the February jailbreak, AQAP militants slammed a car
bomb into the eastern gate of a Sana’a prison as others attacked the guards at
its main entrance. The attack allowed 29 inmates to escape, including the 19
Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and the
home base of AQAP, which has been linked to a number of failed attacks on the
The group has taken advantage of the weakening of Yemen's
central government since 2011, when a popular uprising erupted that eventually
forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years in power.