SANA'A // The US has conducted more than 15 drone attacks in Yemen since the beginning of June, a Yemen defence ministry official said.
The increase of such attacks is part of a US strategy to employ more drones to curb what the US believes is a growing terror threat in Yemen, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The US plans to begin supplementing US military drones with CIA drones because US officials say the political chaos in Yemen has compromised its efforts to contain terrorists in Yemen, the newspapers reported.
US officials said the CIA would operate in coordination with the US Joint Special Operations Command, which has been flying Predators and other remotely piloted planes over Yemen for much of the past year. The new approach is a significant escalation of the clandestine American war in Yemen and a substantial expansion of the CIA's drone war.
US officials say the Yemini government has approved the aggressive use of drones. The Yemeni government denies that. "The Yemeni government did not allow the US to conduct random attacks in the country, though it has agreed to cooperate in the fight against al Qa'eda," said Tareq Shami, the ruling party's spokesman.
US officials have testified repeatedly in recent months that Yemen's arm of al Qa'eda - al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - represents the most immediate terrorism threat to American targets. At a hearing before a Senate committee pn Thursday, the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta confirmed that the agency had expanded its counterterrorism programs in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"Our approach has been to develop operations in each of these areas that will contain al Qa'eda and go after them so they have no place to escape," he said.
AQAP is responsible for plots that have included the unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and an effort to send packages packed with explosives to addresses in the United States last year.
Security officials in Shabwa province said the recent drone attacks in Yemen started during the first week of May when security forces were preoccupied by the escalation of the armed rebellion throughout the country.
Over the past month, there have been at least seven US drone attacks in Shabwa province, where the US believes terrorist Anwar Awlaqi is hiding, a security official in Shabwa said. The last attack was on Saturday when a drone missed its target and caused no casualties. Other drones fired on Shabwa allegedly killed civilians. A drone targeting Mr Awlaqi "killed two teenage brothers", said the official.
Salem Sakheer, a Shabwa resident, said that with the Yemeni government in disarray, he expects more drone attacks. "We knew the Yemeni government would allow US to attack our areas after the death of [al Qa'eda leader Osama] Bin Laden," he said. "We have a weak government now and the blood of Yemenis will be spilt without any questioning."
The Yemen defence official, who requested anonymity, said he ws worried that US strategy may backfire. "United States is turning Yemen into another Pakistan," he said. He said relatives of innocent drone-attack victims will seek to avenge the deaths and resort to terror.
This week alone, Abyan province has seen at least six US drone attacks, witnesses confirmed. Last Friday, the Defence Ministry reported on its website that 30 terrorists were killed in attacks in two days in Abyan province.
Abdullah Luqman, the deputy governor of Abyan, said he is worried that the US is treating Abyan like a board game, where it continues playing, not worrying if the deaths are terrorists or civilians. "These are the lives of innocent people being killed. At least 130 people have been killed in the last two week by US drones." Mr Luqman said.
In May, the majority of attacks were in Shabwa province, said Ali Abdul Jabbar, director of Dar Ashraf research centre. He said that the strategy changed in June, when 80 per cent of the drone attacks were in Abyan.
"The attacks will increase and the US will help in turning Yemen into a terrorist stronghold, " said Mr Abdul Jabbar. "The United States is going against international law and killing people because of suspicion."
On Saturday, a drone targeting an al Qa'eda suspect missed and killed three civilians, when it targeted the residence of al Qa'eda fighter Nader Shadadi. His father, mother, and sister were all killed in the raid. Abdul Hadi Mohammed, a neighbour, said: "Was Shadadi's mother and father terrorist? They were killed by the US drone. They are both over 60 years old."
Mr Mohammed said that the killings will only increase the hatred locals have for the United States, and turn residents into al Qa'eda sympathizers.
Ahmad Khulani, head of the observation committee formed to help evacuating residents, said more than 40,000 people have left Abyan province because they feared drone strikes. Families are not planning to return to Abyan anytime soon. "Who can we complain to for the death of a relative? We will not come back to this city," said Salma Ja'afar, a housewife who left the province last week and headed to Aden.
Yemen's opposition Joint Meeting Parties have not condemned the US drone attacks in Shabwa and Abyan.
They fear that the US will not support them politically and will consider any criticism as sympathy for al Qa'eda.
Ahmed Bahri, the head of the political office at the opposition Haq party, said: "We are worried the Yemen government will turn into a puppet regime like the one in Pakistan today. The United States must honour the lives of Yemenis and stop drone attacks."