ADEN, Yemen — An “unprecedented” US and Yemeni aerial campaign in Yemen killed at least 68 al-Qaeda militants in a bid to head off attacks by the network’s local affiliate, officials said Monday.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been linked to a number of failed terror plots against the United States, and its leader has appeared in a rare video in which he vowed to attack Western “crusaders… everywhere in the world.”
A top Yemeni official told AFP the “unprecedented” Saturday-Sunday air war came after “information that al-Qaeda was plotting attacks on vital installations, military and security, as well as foreign interests in Yemen.”
The Interior Ministry said intensive air strikes on al-Qaeda bases in the rugged mountains of Abyan province on Sunday killed 55 militants, including three local chiefs.
Tribal sources had put the death toll from the raids near the town of Al-Mahfad at more than 30.
The Interior Ministry said the raids lasted several hours, adding that “terrorists of Arab and foreign nationalities are among the dead and are in the process of being identified.”
The top official said Yemeni MiG-29 jet fighters took part in the raids, which tribal sources said involved unmanned drones.
The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen, but US officials rarely acknowledge the covert drone program.
A drone strike on Sunday night killed three militants, one of whom may have been a senior commander, when a missile blasted their off-road vehicle in the southern Shabwa province, an official said.
Witnesses confirmed the vehicle was completely destroyed and said they saw the charred remains of three individuals.
Shortly after the attack, commandos in an unmarked helicopter arrived to retrieve the bodies, they said.
“The operation seems to indicate that one of the dead could be an important leader of al-Qaeda,” one witness told AFP.
And on Saturday, a drone strike in the central province of Baida killed 10 Al-Qaeda suspects and three civilians, official Saba news agency reported. It did not say who carried out the attack.
Meanwhile, two gunmen on a motorbike shot dead an intelligence officer Monday and wounded another in Sanaa, in an attack that “bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda,” an official said.
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, meanwhile, awarded Yemen’s counter-terrorism unit the medal of “bravery” for its “successful raid last night,” the government said in a statement.
“The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts at any time and place,” said Hadi.
‘War against crusaders’
The weekend attacks came after AQAP chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi pledged to fight Western “crusaders” everywhere, apparently referring to the United States and other countries which have intervened in Muslim countries.
“We will continue to raise the banner of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and our war against the crusaders will continue everywhere in the world,” he said in a video posted online last month.
The video, which showed Wuhayshi addressing militants, could have been shot in the Al-Kur mountain range, which stretches between Abyan, Shabwa and Baida provinces, and has become a stronghold for AQAP, tribal sources said.
Hadi has defended the use of drones, despite criticism from rights groups concerned about civilian casualties.
The United States has defended its use of drones against Al-Qaeda, saying they allow it to target jihadists without sending soldiers into lawless areas where local authorities have little or no control.
Rights groups have criticised the drone programme in Yemen and other countries, and repeatedly urged the US administration to investigate strikes in which civilians have been killed.