ADEN // US fighter jets pounded Al Qaeda targets in Yemen for a second consecutive day on Friday, killing eight militants, as Washington steps up its air war against the extremists.
The Pentagon said it had carried out more than 20 strikes since Thursday targeting Al Qaeda in the southern provinces of Shabwa and Abyan and the central province of Bayda.
The strikes targeted Al Qaeda positions, weapons systems and equipment in a remote and mountainous area in central Yemen.
Capt Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the strikes were aimed at degrading the group’s ability to “coordinate external terror attacks” and to limit its use of Yemen as a “safe space for terror plotting”.
Yemeni security officials said US jets and drones targeted at least six districts where the provinces of Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan meet. An official said the strikes killed seven Al Qaeda militants in Shabwa and Abyan.
The pre-dawn attack shook houses and awoke sleeping residents, many of whom fled in fear, as smoke billowed into the sky and explosions lit up the horizon, according to local tribal leaders.
Al Qaeda issued a statement claiming local fighters foiled a US ground raid in Abyan. It said US naval vessels launched a wave of random shelling to provide cover for the forces to pull out.
But several US officials flatly denied that the US participated in any ground raid in Yemen. They said US air strikes targeted Al Qaeda artillery and other sites, and that no US navy ships participated in the mission.
Yemeni officials said at least 12 suspected militants were killed in the air raids which came barely one month after a botched US commando raid against the group left multiple civilians and a Navy Seal dead.
In Friday’s strikes, US warplanes hit three houses in the Yashbam Valley before dawn, one of them the home of Saad Alef, Al Qaeda’s commander in Shabwa province.
Tribal sources said that women and children were also wounded.
The valley is an extremist stronghold and was a key target of the air strikes. Security officials said US helicopters also took part in the operation. The militants retaliated with anti-aircraft fire, during what residents described as “ a terrifying night.”
US president Donald Trump faced broad criticism at home after he authorised the January 29 commando raid during which Navy Seal Ryan Owens was killed and multiple civilians perished, including up to eight women and eight children. Human rights groups also condemned the raid.
Al Qaeda has exploited a power vacuum created by two years of war between Yemen’s government and Shiite rebels who control the capital to consolidate its presence, particularly in the south and east.
Successive US administrations have kept up a drone war against Al Qaeda in Yemen since soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Washington regards the Yemen branch as the extremist group’s most dangerous and holds it responsible for several plots to carry out attacks in the West.
* Agence France-Presse