Story highlights

The missiles hit in areas in Abyan province near areas taken over by a militant group

Some residents in the area say they saw the aircraft

"We were scared and expected a night of explosions and blood," resident says

CNN  — 

A suspected drone strike hit militant targets in southern Yemen on Monday night, killing at least nine people with suspected links to al Qaeda, security officials said.

The missiles struck Abyan province near areas that have been taken over by Ansaar al-Sharia, a militant group with links to al Qaeda, three security officials officials said.

The militant group took over large parts of Abyan province in May after government forces evacuated a number of security posts and military bases. The group announced Abyan as an Islamic emirate and is calling for the implementation of Sharia law.

Hundreds of troops and militant fighters have been killed in the government’s efforts to clear the province from the hands of the militants, according to Yemen’s defense ministry.

Two security officials said the drones were from the United States.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the drone program, though privately they have said the covert strikes are legal and an effective tactic in the fight against extremists.

A CIA-operated drone attack in September killed American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the external operations commander and chief recruiter of English-speaking militants for the al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula. But key players remain at large in Yemen, experts say.

Some residents in the area said they saw the aircraft in the Monday attack.

“The U.S. aircraft was flying in surprisingly low altitude Monday night. We were scared and expected a night of explosions and blood,” said Mousa Abdul Kadoos Abu Ali, a resident of Lowder distict, an area in the province.