By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Talks that looked set to secure the release of a Saudi Arabian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen broke off on Monday when the air force hit members of the militant group suspected of holding him, said a tribal leader involved in the negotiations.
Abdallah al-Khalidi, the Saudi deputy consul in the port city of Aden, was seized outside his residence on March 28. Riyadh said a suspected al Qaeda militant had claimed responsibility and had threatened to kill Khalidi unless a ransom was paid and militants were freed from Saudi prisons.
Early on Monday, tribal elder Sheikh Tareq al-Fadli said he expected Khalidi to be freed "within the coming hours", but later, just as he was about to be handed over, Yemen's air force bombarded several sites in the southern Abyan province and the captors stopped answering telephone calls.
"We are having difficulty contacting the militants because of the intensifying air strikes on their sites," said Fadli, a tribal head in Abyan.
Residents and local officials said at least 15 people were killed in the air strikes which targeted a car and two suspected hideouts near the town of Lawdar. Residents saw militants carrying their dead comrades towards the village of Umm Ayn, where they buried them.
A tribal source had told Reuters the Saudi diplomat was being held in the militant-held town of Jaar, some 100 km (60 miles) from Lawdar.
A French aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was seized by armed men on Saturday while on his way from north Yemen to the eastern port of Hudaida, had also been taken to Jaar, the source said.
Officials say more than 200 Islamist fighters have been killed in the area around Lawdar over the past two weeks as the air force targeted suspected militants.
Islamist insurgents and separatist groups have been emboldened by more than a year of upheaval in Yemen that was sparked by mass protests which eventually ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The United States and Yemen's neighbor Saudi Arabia have been especially alarmed by the rise of militants allied to Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a regional wing of al Qaeda that has sworn to bring down Saudi Arabia's ruling family.
A Saudi government spokesman last week said the man claiming responsibility for the kidnapping had been identified as Mishaal al-Shodoukhi, who was named on a list of fugitive al Qaeda militants by Saudi authorities in 2009.
Shodoukhi said his group would "prepare the knives" unless their demands were met and threatened further attacks, including an embassy bombing and the assassination of a Saudi prince, the Saudi spokesman said.
Riyadh, which has substantial influence among Yemeni tribes, rejected any negotiations with al Qaeda for the release of Khalidi.
Residents in Jaar said Ansar al-Sharia had distributed leaflets saying it would execute about 70 Yemeni soldiers it took captive last month unless Yemen released fellow Islamist fighters from jail.
In addition to the air strikes, another three militants were killed in clashes with the army in the city of Zinjibar, close to Jaar, residents and a local official said.
Further to the east, a U.S. drone hit a car carrying suspected militants in Nasab in the eastern province of Shabwah, killing three and wounding two, residents and officials said.
And in the southeastern province of Hadramout, a local security official said a senior army officer was killed by unidentified militants who riddled his car with bullets as he drove through the town of Doan and fled the scene.
(Writing by Rania El Gamal and Isabel Coles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)