A government warplane bombed an army position in southern Yemen, killing at least 30 soldiers involved in months of intense battles against al-Qaida members, officials said Sunday.
The strike appeared to be a mistake, but the soldiers hit were from a unit that had defected to side with protesters seeking the president's ouster in Yemen's chapter of the Arab Spring, raising questions about whether the bombing might have been intentional.
Yemen's' government and the renegade military units both consider Yemen's al-Qaida branch an enemy. The president's political opponents, however, accuse him of allowing the Islamic militants to seize control of several towns in southern Yemen earlier this year in a bid to spark fears in the West that without him in power, al-Qaida would take over.
The airstrike, which took place on Saturday evening in Abyan province, targeted an abandoned school used as a shelter by soldiers of the army's 119th Brigade who were battling the al-Qaida fighters, military and medical officials said. The brigade is thought to have received significant support from the U.S. military to enable it to fight the militants in the south more effectively.
The school is located just east of Abyan's provincial capital, Zinjibar, seized in May by Islamic militants taking advantage of Yemen's political turmoil to expand their reach. In recent days, fighting in the area has been heavy; 28 soldiers and militants were killed there Saturday.
After the airstrike, militants inspecting the site shot and killed soldiers who were wounded by the bombing, the military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Yemen's turmoil is of deep concern to the United States and Europe in large part because of the possibility that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula will benefit from it and carve out an even bigger haven in Yemen from which to plot attacks on the West.
The group was behind several nearly successful strikes on U.S. targets, including the failed attempt in 2009 to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner with explosives sewn into the underwear of a would-be suicide bomber.
On Friday, an American drone strike in Yemen killed U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a key al-Qaida figure, and Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who produced the terror group's English-language Web magazine, Inspire.
On the same day, two U.S. officials said intelligence had indicated that the top al-Qaida bomb-maker in Yemen also died in the strike _ Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was linked to the bomb hidden in the underwear of the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up the plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because al-Asiri's death had not officially been confirmed.
In Washington on Sunday, a top Yemeni official said al-Asiri was not killed in the strike. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Tribal elders on Sunday said the convoy targeted in the strike may have included a third car that escaped. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals for speaking to the media.
Yemen's crisis began in February when protesters inspired by Arab uprisings across the region took to the streets to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down after 33 years in office. The government responded with a bloody crackdown that has included the use of pro-regime snipers to pick off unarmed demonstrators.
In the months since, government forces have also battled armed anti-Saleh tribesmen and another renegade army unit, the elite 1st Armored Division, which defected to the opposition in March.
That fighting has transformed parts of Sanaa into war zones, with mortar shells and rockets tearing through buildings in the capital for weeks.
On Sunday, a mortar shell struck a school in Sanaa, killing a girl and wounding six others, said a hospital official, Mohammed al-Qabati. It was not clear which side fired the shell.
AP intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report from Washington.