Ten Al-Qaeda suspects were killed while a top leader in the network escaped death as US drones carried out several air strikes on their strongholds in Yemen's south, local officials said Wednesday.
"US drones carried out two air strikes on Al-Mahfad (in the southern Abyan province) where Al-Qaeda militants -- among them Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) number two Saeed al-Shehri -- are present," said a local official in the village.
Four suspected militants were killed while Shehri escaped, said the well-informed official who requested anonymity.
Another local official from the town of Shaqra -- controlled by the militants since June -- said that six other "Al-Qaeda gunmen" were killed and three were wounded in two separate air raids on the town.
Since anti-government protests swept Yemen in late January, militants have taken advantage of the weakening of central authority to set up base in several southern provinces as well as Marib province in the east.
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In May, a group who name themselves the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic Law), believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, seized control of many regions across Abyan province.
Washington and other Western governments have repeatedly expressed growing concern about the role Al-Qaeda might play in Yemen if the regime of veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh collapses and a power vacuum ensues.
Late on Tuesday, the Washington Post said that the United States is building an array of secret new drone bases to conduct strikes against Al-Qaeda targets in Somalia and Yemen.
The Post said the United States is also conducting drone missions over Yemen and Somalia from Djibouti, seeking to weaken Al-Qaeda affiliates in both countries.
"It’s a conscious recognition that those are the hot spots developing right now," it quoted a former senior US military official as saying.
The United States regularly launches drone strikes against suspected militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where it claims to have greatly degraded Al-Qaeda's core leadership.