SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's official security committee said on Friday that people targeted in an airstrike in central city were al-Qaida militants including those who masterminded attacks on vital institutions, the police and army.
The Friday statement by the Supreme Security Committee, headed by Yemen's president, was referring Thursday's drone strike that was believed to have targeted a convoy heading to a wedding party in the central city of Radda, killing 13 people.
It said that the airstrike targeted one car belonging to al-Qaida leaders. "Inside the car, there were members and leaders who masterminded armed forces, police, and vital institutions."
"This is part of ongoing efforts to chase and track al-Qaida members," the committee said in its statement, adding, "the security apparatus will not allow those elements to spread chaos and threaten security, stability and general order."
The committee warned citizens from providing "aid or shelter to any of the terrorist elements" and urged them to notify security authorities about them.
In Radda, witnesses say the families of the dead held a protest in front of local city council demanding an investigation and holding the government responsible for the killings. The demonstration came after the families brought their beloved ones and lined them up inside a mosque in the city, holding up their burial in protest, according to witnesses.
Later on the day, the families agreed to sit with tribal leaders who offered mediation.
Khaled al-Raddai, a witness who was inside the mosque, told The Associated Press that some of the bodies had torn limbs and were wrapped in blooded sheets. He said only 11 bodies were inside the mosque.
The city, a stronghold of al-Qaida militants, witnessed deadly clashes early last year between armed tribesmen backed by the military and al-Qaida gunmen they tried to drive out of the city.
On Thursday, a Yemeni military official said initial information indicated the drone mistook the motorcade for an al-Qaida convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.
While the U.S. acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not usually talk about individual strikes.
If further investigations determine that the victims were all civilians, the attack could fuel an outburst of anger against the United States and the government in Sanaa as well as a Yemeni public already opposed to the U.S. drone strikes.
Civilian deaths have bred resentment on a local level, sometimes undermining U.S. efforts to turn the public against the militants. The backlash in Yemen is still not as large as in Pakistan, where there is heavy pressure on the government to force limits on strikes — but public calls for a halt to strikes are starting to emerge.
In October, two U.N. human rights investigators called for more transparency from the United States and other countries about their drone programs, saying their secrecy is the biggest obstacle to determining the civilian toll of such strikes.
The missile attacks in Yemen are part of a joint U.S.-Yemeni campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington has called the most dangerous branch of the global terrorist network.
Thursday's drone strike is the second since a massive car bombing and coordinated assault on Yemen's military headquarters killed 56 people, including foreigners. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for U.S. drone strikes that have killed dozens of the group's leaders.