NEW: Drone strikes targeted a truck carrying 11 suspected militants, officials say
NEW: One of the strikes inadvertently hit a civilian pickup truck, a witness says
Most of those killed were al Qaeda militants, Yemeni officials say
A drone strike in Yemen on Saturday killed at least 10 suspected al Qaeda militants but also inadvertently resulted in the deaths of three civilian day laborers, a high-level Yemeni government official told CNN.
The strike targeted a pickup in al-Hazemiyah district of al-Bayda province, three Yemeni Defense Ministry sources said. The militants were heading to neighboring Shabwa province, a hotbed for al Qaeda, they said.
“The truck targeted carried 11 militants. The targeting came while they were in transit after leaving a training site. Ten were killed and one was injured,” the government official said on the condition of anonymity.
A civilian truck carrying five day laborers was also hit in the strike, the official said. Three died and two were wounded.
A casualty toll released earlier by the three Yemen Defense Ministry officials was slightly higher, with 12 suspected militants and three civilians reportedly killed.
“The militants were on a coordinating mission, and we have had our eyes on them for quite a while now,” a senior ministry official told CNN on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to media.
A source from the region said the strike targeted three “well-known” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives linked to a training camp in southern Yemen.
AQAP, considered the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, has repeatedly been targeted by drone strikes.
None of those killed in the strike was believed to be among AQAP’s senior leadership, the source said. The targets of the drone strike had been closely monitored for some time during their training camp activities, the source said.
The drone strike came on the heels of the recent emergence of a video showing a large gathering of al Qaeda members in Yemen. There is no indication – at this point – that this strike had anything to do with the video, made last month and aired by CNN earlier this week.
“The strike today had nothing to do with the tape showing the gathering of AQAP,” the government official said. “This operation was in the making for some time, as AQAP has stepped up its attacks against military targets and government officials in Bayda.”
Salem al-Kashm was driving behind the civilian pickup driven by a friend when he said the strikes occurred.
“Minutes after the first attack, a second attack took place, killing three of my friends,” he said.
“The drone then kept going in circles after the attack to ensure that none of the militants were able to escape.”
A Defense Ministry official said, “It’s unfortunate the civilians were there in the wrong time.”
Yemen’s al Qaeda threat
The United States is the only country known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen.
So far this year, including Saturday’s strike, there have been eight drone attacks in the country, according to Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst.
Only this week, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said his country could handle the al Qaeda threat alone. “Security is one of the main challenges facing Yemen,” al-Qirbi said.
Even though more voices have risen within Yemen in opposition to U.S.-led drone strikes, President Abdu Rabu Hadi has shown no sign his counterterrorism strategy will change, especially because al Qaeda has proved to be a bigger threat than anticipated.
But his stance has angered some parliamentarians.
“It’s a black dot for President Hadi to allow drones to roam our skies and kill our people,” said Ali al-Mamari, a prominent member of parliament.
New al Qaeda video signals new round of plotting
A video recently made public shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
In the middle of the clip, the man known as al Qaeda’s crown prince, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, appears out in the open, greeting followers in Yemen.
Al-Wuhayshi, the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda globally and the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has said he wants to attack the United States.
But in the video, he looks unconcerned that he could be hit by an American drone.
In a speech to the group, al-Wuhayshi makes it clear that he’s going after the United States, saying “We must eliminate the cross. … The bearer of the cross is America!”
The video started appearing on jihadist websites recently, drawing the attention of U.S. officials and global terrorism experts.
U.S. officials believe the highly produced video is recent and authentic. With some fighters’ faces blurred, there is worry it signals a new round of plotting. Every frame of the video is now being analyzed by the United States.
CNN’s Hakim Almasmari reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Barbara Starr reported from Washington. Yousuf Basil and Joe Sterling contributed to this report