SANAA, Yemen (AP) — U.S. jets carried out dozens of airstrikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen overnight and in the past 48 hours in one of the lengthiest, sustained operations inside this conflict-torn Arab country, Yemeni officials and residents said Friday.
According to the officials, the strikes focused on a triangle-shaped mountainous region where three Yemeni provinces meet: Bayda, Shabwa, and Abyan. Casualty figures have been slow to emerge but officials said seven alleged al-Qaida militants were killed in the strikes on Thursday.
A senior Yemeni official described the strikes as "open-ended" and said they raised questions about the objectives of such an operation.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday that U.S. warplanes over the past two days targeted members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the group's infrastructure, fighting positions and heavy weapons. He said approximately 25 strikes had been launched on Thursday and "several" more Friday, for a total of more than 30.
Davis said the U.S. was engaged in a sustained campaign in areas of Yemen where AQAP is most active. He said no U.S. ground troops have been involved in firefights there since a late-January raid.
Residents in Shabwa said strikes hit the town of Wadi Yabsham, where Saad Atef, the No. 2 figure in Yemen's al-Qaida branch, is living.
The residents and Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to journalists.
Sadek al-Jaouf, a Bayada tribal leader, told The Associated Press that houses were bombed in Yakla district — the site of a U.S. special operations raid two months ago in which a Navy SEAL was killed, six American soldiers were wounded and a U.S. military aircraft suffered a hard landing and had to be destroyed.
In the ground operation, a total of 25 Yemenis were killed, including 10 children, drawing criticism by international rights groups and calls for an inquiry.
Al-Jaouf added that the top tribal figure, Abdel-Elah al-Dhahab, whose brothers were accused of links to al-Qaida and were killed in the January raid, survived the latest strikes.
On Thursday, Davis said the latest strikes were aimed at degrading al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's ability to "coordinate external terror attacks" and to limit its use of Yemen as a "safe space for terror plotting." The group has long been seen as the global network's most dangerous branch, and has been implicated in a number of attempted attacks on the U.S. homeland.
The group has recently exploited the chaos of Yemen's civil war, which pits Shiite Houthi rebels and allied army units against a Saudi-led coalition battling to restore the internationally recognized government.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.