SANAA, Yemen | A suspected U.S. drone strike killed seven alleged al-Qaida militants Wednesday in southern Yemen, security officials and residents said, as the Arab nation remained on high alert following threats of a terror attack targeting Western of government interests.
It was the fifth strike in less than two weeks in Yemen, which has emerged as the focus of fears of an attack that has led the United States to temporarily shut down 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa, and to evacuate staff from the embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
The U.S. has dramatically stepped up its use of drone strikes in Yemen in its covert fight against al-Qaida’s branch there, which is considered one of the most active of the terror network. Washington also has been backing a Yemeni military campaign to uproot al-Qaida militants and their radical allies who had taken over a string of southern cities and towns. The militants have largely been driven into the mountains and countryside, and Yemeni intelligence officials say the current threat may be retaliation for that offensive.
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat told The Associated Press that the closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major terror attack.
The drone strike killed the militants in Shabwa province, setting two vehicles on fire, security officials said. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Residents in the province’s Markha area, who also declined to be identified, fearing retaliation, said they saw several bodies on fire in two burning cars.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press reporter in Sanaa said a drone has been buzzing overhead for most of the day. Authorities have set up checkpoints across Sanaa, searching cars and individuals. Top government officials, along with military and security commanders, were told to stay vigilant and limit their movements.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not confirm individual strikes or release information on how many have been carried out.
The Yemeni army has surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in Sanaa as well as the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
The terror network’s Yemeni offshoot, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been bolstering its operations in Yemen over the past few years after key Saudi operatives fled there following a major crackdown in their homeland.
The group overran entire towns and villages in 2011, taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted Yemen’s longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen’s army was able to regain control of the southern region, but al-Qaida militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces.