Yemeni military officials said Saturday that two U.S. airstrikes killed at least 18 al-Qaida-linked militants in an evening attack on a central province that had been partly overrun by the group earlier this year.
U.S. Central Command spokesman, Army Maj. T.G. Taylor, declined to comment on any American role in the strikes.
The U.S. considers the Yemen branch of al-Qaida one of its most dangerous. U.S. aircraft have targeted leaders of the branch in Yemen in the past, including an drone strike last year that killed American-born al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Residents in Bayda province, where the attack was carried out Friday evening, and a medical official there said 18 militants had been killed. They said al-Qaida quickly buried the bodies. However, the governor of Bayda said in a statement Saturday that the death toll reached 30, including Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani and Afghan nationals.
Three Yemeni military officials blamed the attack on the U.S., saying the Yemeni military does not have the capacity to carry out nighttime air strikes and had no orders to do so.
One of the officials, a Yemeni air force colonel, said there were reports of U.S. drones circling over Bayda province, some 100 miles (170 kilometers) southeast of the capital Sanaa, earlier in the week. The officials said a top al-Qaida commander may have been among those killed, adding that at least two houses were demolished in the air strikes.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula took advantage of a year of protests in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, to expand its reach. The uprising eventually led to the ouster of longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, but poorly equipped and trained Yemeni armed forces have failed to regain control of key towns from al-Qaida.
U.S. officials said the Pentagon is planning to restart programs that would fund military training and equipment in Yemen with about $75 million in assistance, nearly a year after they were shut down because of the political turmoil. The U.S. has poured more than $326 million in security and civilian assistance into Yemen since 2007.
The air strikes on Bayda come after a band of al-Qaida militants pushed into the province in January, capturing the town of Radda. They raised the black al-Qaida flag over an ancient castle that overlooks the town. They also stormed the local jail and freed around 150 inmates, including an unspecified number of militants loyal to al-Qaida.
Tribal leaders eventually forced the militants out of Radda, and blamed security forces for turning a blind eye to the militants and allowing the security situation to deteriorate.
Al-Qaida continues to have a presence in the province, though, which gives them a territorial foothold closer than ever to the capital, where sleeper cells of the terror network are thought to be located.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, faces the heavy burden of trying to dislodge the militants. He was sworn-in as president Feb. 25 after taking over from Saleh, who ruled the country for more than three decades.
Protesters and military officials blame the lawlessness in parts of Yemen on commanders installed by Saleh, who they say promoted his allies and relatives on the basis of loyalty not competence. They say these officers were lax about taking the fight to al-Qaida, and may have struck local deals with the militants.
If Hadi leaves these commanders in place, military officials say al-Qaida is likely to expand areas under its control and continue to stage bold attacks.
A military official said Yemeni airstrikes on Saturday near the southern city of Jaar in Abyan province wounded nine al-Qaida-linked militants and destroyed several military vehicles the group had seized in an attack on an army base last week.
In that attack, al-Qaida militants sneaked across the desert at dawn to the back lines of Yemeni forces. Many of the troops were asleep in their tents when militants sprayed them with bullets. Their bodies, many of which were missing heads or mutilated, were later dumped in the desert.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.
Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.