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SANAA (Reuters) - A senior al Qaeda leader wanted by the United States and an area commander of its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, were killed in U.S. drone strikes in central Yemen overnight, the Islamist militant group said on Wednesday.
Nabil al-Dahab, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen's al-Bayda province, was killed along with Shawki al-Badani and several other militants, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in a statement posted on the Internet. Badani, who was described by AQAP as an emir (prince) -- a titled held by senior leaders -- has had a $100,000 bounty by the United States on his head.
Their deaths deal a severe blow to the Islamist militant group that has repeatedly targeted Yemeni government facilities, army facilities and personnel and even Western missions since mass protests forced long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012.
"We cannot find the words to give the two lions their dues, no matter how much we tried," AQAP said in the statement mourning the two commanders.
Both men, it said, had been leading a fight to stop Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters extending their control to the Sunni Muslim heartland.
The Yemeni Defence Ministry said Badani had been killed, and added without elaborating that an al Qaeda leader it identified as Abu Maysara al-Hanaki had been killed by air strikes.
The U.S. State Department had designated Badani as a "global terrorist", saying he was linked to at least two plots against the U.S. embassy in Sanaa and a 2012 suicide bombing in the Yemeni capital that killed more than 100 soldiers.
A June 17, 2014, posting on the State Department website said the Yemeni government had offered a $100,000 reward for information about Badani. It also reported Yemeni authorities describing him as one of "the most dangerous terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda".
U.S. drone strikes killed at least 10 suspected al Qaeda militants on Tuesday in central Yemen, where fighting between members of Ansar al-Sharia and rebel Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters also killed 10 people, tribesmen said.
Fighting has flared in different parts of Yemen since the Houthis rose to dominance in recent months, threatening the fragile stability of a country that borders Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter.
Houthi forces took over Sanaa in September and fanned out into central and western Yemen. That antagonized Sunni tribesmen and al Qaeda militants, who regard the Houthis as heretics.
In the latest advance on Wednesday, residents said Houthi fighters entered the town of al-Odayn in Ibb province after brief clashes with Ansar al-Sharia fighters.
One resident who gave his name as Abdulaziz told Reuters by telephone that Ansar al-Sharia fighters vanished in the early afternoon when the Houthis arrived.
A leader of the Dahab tribe earlier said that one of Nabil al-Dahab's bodyguards had been identified as among those killed in the overnight air strike, but he could not confirm Dahab himself had been killed because other bodies had been obliterated beyond recognition.
Other residents of Dahab's al-Manaseh village said they could neither confirm nor deny the reported death of the local Ansar al-Sharia leader, saying he had not been heard from since the Houthis captured the area last month.
The United States acknowledges using drones in Yemen but does not comment publicly on the practice. Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen are among the most active wings of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
A statement issued by residents of the Qifa region, where the past few days of drone strikes have taken place, complained that the strikes by both the U.S. drones and the Yemeni air force were targeting "women and children at home".
"Those who are fighting the Houthis in Radda are the sons of the local tribes, and those who say they are al Qaeda ...are making these charges to justify the drones rocketing our houses and killing our families," the statement said.
Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Ralph Boulton