ADEN (Reuters) - Air strikes on a factory seized by al Qaeda-linked Islamists in southern Yemen killed at least three of their fighters on Sunday, the militants and residents said.
Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia said the attack was carried out by U.S. drones, which Washington has repeatedly used to target militants in the strife-torn nation.
Residents said planes bombarded the mountainous area of Jebel Khanfar overlooking the town of Jaar, which al Qaeda-linked militants snatched last year while anti-government protests paralyzed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. authorities or the Yemeni government.
About 59 militants have been killed in a wave of air strikes in the south of the country since Friday, according to local officials and tribal sources.
The campaign comes in response to a spate of attacks by Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), the deadliest of which killed at least 110 conscripts last week, in a bleak reminder of the challenges faced by newly elected president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
"Three holy warriors were martyred this evening through American bombardment of Jebel Khanfar..." read a text message sent to Reuters, purporting to come from an Ansar al-Sharia spokesperson.
The message denied media reports the attack had hit an ammunition store.
Wary of al Qaeda's presence in Yemen, Washington backed a Gulf-brokered power transition plan under which former president Ali Abdullah Saleh handed power to Hadi, previously his deputy. Hadi took office last month vowing to fight militancy.
But a year of political upheaval has severely weakened central government over whole swathes of the country, allowing militants to seize several towns in the southern province of Abyan, including the two largest: Jaar and Zinjibar.
Islamist fighters traded artillery fire with the army in the north of Zinjibar and the outskirts of Jaar late on Sunday, residents said.
Separately, Yemeni security forces said they had detained four Somali men suspected of belonging to the Somali al Shabaab militant group.
Al Qaeda-allied al-Shabaab has sent 300 armed men to fight alongside the Yemen-based wing of the militant network, it said. The four Somalis were captured on the road between the southern provinces of Lahej and Abyan.
Two men were killed in the Mudiyah district of Abyan when a bomb they planned to use in an attack on government forces exploded by accident late on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
"The bodies of the two were ripped apart in the explosion, which happened before they were able to execute their attack," the ministry said in the statement posted on its website, identifying them as Yasser and Muneef al-Hawi.
It gave no further details on whether the men were associated with al Qaeda.
U.S. drone attacks killed at least 25 al Qaeda-linked fighters on Saturday in southern Yemen in the biggest operations since Hadi formally took over from Saleh.
Thirty-four al Qaeda militants were killed in a Yemeni air force raid on Friday in al-Bayda, the governor of the southern province was cited as saying by the defense ministry on Sunday. The death toll had previously been put at 20 militants.
The governor said two Pakistanis, two Saudi nationals, and one Syrian and one Iraqi were among the dead. Four of the men killed were senior militant commanders, he said, without giving further details of their identity.
In the oil-producing province of Maarib, a pipeline already idled by an attack last year was targeted again, the interior ministry said on its website, adding it had identified those behind the incident.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Michael Roddy)