SANAA (Reuters) - FBI director Robert Mueller visited Yemen on Tuesday, pledging to help quell an Islamist insurgency there, as security and government sources said a U.S. drone had killed a prominent al Qaeda leader linked to a 2005 attack on a French oil tanker.
In a meeting with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who took office earlier this year, Mueller promised that the United States would continue to support Yemen "with full force" in all respects.
"Mueller visits Yemen on an annual basis so this is not a special or secret occasion," said Mohammed Al-Basha, Yemen's spokesman in Washington. "President Hadi emphasized that he is strongly committed to combating extremism and working with the U.S. to counter the mutual threat of terrorism."
Separately, the Yemeni embassy in Washington said on Tuesday that Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, convicted in 2005 of involvement in an attack on the Limburg oil tanker, had been killed in an air strike on his convoy in the oil-producing province of Maarib on Sunday. It did not specify whether it was a U.S. strike.
Umda, described by the embassy as Yemen's fourth-most wanted man, had received military training under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and was in charge of the group's finances, a security source said.
The United States has repeatedly used drones to target suspected al Qaeda militants, who have been emboldened by a year of political upheaval in the impoverished state.
Exploiting mass protests against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33 years in office, militants linked to al Qaeda last year seized large swathes of territory in southern Yemen, including at least two towns.
Yemen's army, which split into two factions during the uprising that eventually unseated Saleh, has been battling to get the upper hand against the militants.
On Tuesday, the Defence Ministry put the total number of militants killed in the volatile southern Abyan province over the past two days in the latest bout of fighting at 52.
It said the Yemeni army has also seized some government offices from militants as they pushed deep inside the provincial capital of Zinjibar.
SALEH'S HALF-BROTHER STEPS ASIDE
President Hadi is trying to reform the army, but has run up against the vested interests of Saleh's relatives and allies still in charge of the military and security establishment.
In a modest victory for Hadi, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, a half-brother of Saleh left his post as air force commander on Tuesday. Earlier this month, he shut down the capital's airport and grounded all flights to protest against his removal in a direct challenge to Hadi's authority.
"The handover has taken place as stated in the decree issued by the president," U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar told reporters in Sanaa. "It was a smooth handover with no conditions whatsoever."
The development is the first time Hadi has succeeded in distancing Saleh's relatives from power - but Saleh's son, nephew and other allies remain in place as heads of key military units.
Benomar, who helped push through the plan under which Saleh eventually left office after more than a year of popular unrest, persuaded the former president to lean on his half-brother to step aside, a government official said.
"The U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar conducted negotiations to convince the former president of the need to implement the decree to remove his half brother from the leadership of the air force," said the official, on condition of anonymity.
General Rashed Ali Nasser al-Jund replaces Saleh's half-brother as head of the air force. Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar has been appointed an assistant to the defence minister.
Hadi, who had been Saleh's vice-president, was elected president unopposed in February under a U.S.-backed transition plan brokered by Yemen's wealthy Gulf neighbors, anxious to halt a slide into mayhem.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, a local security source said the head of political security in southern Lahej province had survived an assassination attempt that had left him with severe injuries. The source said a bomb had been attached to his car and it exploded when he started the engine.
(Reporting by Tom Finn and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Osborn)