ADEN: Overnight air raids struck an al Qaeda meeting and control post in southern Yemen, killing around 15 people including a long-hunted regional militant leader, tribal chiefs said on Tuesday.
The four night-time raids were "carried out by US planes," according to a local military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. They hit targets in the Loder and al Wadih areas of Abyan province, a tribal chief said.
Al Qaeda militants control much of the province after taking advantage of months of political turmoil, which has forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to step down next month, to overrun swathes of the south.
"We think they were carried out by American planes," a tribal chief said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Three of the raids targeted a school in which al Qaeda fighters and chiefs of a local militant network were meeting around midnight, the sources said.
Around a dozen people were killed, among them regional al Qaeda leader Abdul Monem al-Fathani, who has long been sought by the Yemeni authorities, and other local chiefs, they said.
The fourth strike hit an al Qaeda control post, killing three more people, they said.
"Two planes carried out these raids and continued to fly over the region through the night," another tribal chief told AFP.
The deteriorating security situation in Yemen, caught up in an Arab pro-democracy uprising unleashed a year ago, has raised alarm including at the UN Security Council of a growing presence of al Qaeda militants in lawless areas in the south and east of the country.
In mid-January the extremists made a significant advance towards the capital Sanaa when more than 1,000 al Qaeda fighters swept into the town of Rada and held it for nine days.
They bowed to tribal pressure and withdrew from the town, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southeast of Sanaa, after authorities pledged to free 15 militants.
The New York Times reported in June that the United States had stepped up its attacks on militant suspects in Yemen with armed drones and fighter jets.
The southern Arabian Peninsula country is the ancestral homeland of al Qaeda's late founder Osama bin Laden who was killed in May in a US raid in Pakistan.
It has been the scene of several attacks claimed by the group on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil installations.
The Saudi branch of al Qaeda is believed to have joined forces with militants in Yemen under the banner of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula with the aim of launching attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The rugged terrain of Yemen, which stretches over 529,000 square kilometres (204,248 square miles), provides ideal cover for armed groups.
Saleh is in the United States for medical treatment after being seriously wounded in a bombing at the presidential palace in Sanaa in June.
In November, after 10 months of bloody protests, he signed a deal by which he transferred constitutional powers to his deputy who is the sole candidate for next month's presidential polls.
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