ADEN (Reuters) - Air raids killed 14 men suspected of belonging to al Qaeda in southern Yemen on Sunday, medics and local residents said, in one of the largest U.S.-led assaults on the group since a civil war broke out a year ago.
The air strikes took place as fresh signs emerged that tensions were easing between the Iran-allied Houthis who control most of northern Yemen and Saudi-led forces after a year of fighting that has killed more than 6,200 people.
Residents in southern Yemen said an aircraft bombed buildings used by al Qaeda in the southern coastal Abyan province and destroyed a government intelligence headquarters in the provincial capital Zinjibar that the militants had captured and were using as a base. Medics said six people were killed.
Earlier on Sunday a suspected U.S. drone attack killed eight militants gathered in courtyards in the villages of al-Hudhn and Naqeel al-Hayala in Abyan, residents told Reuters by phone.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of a war pitting the Houthis against forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to seize territory and operate more openly.
The group has carried out attacks against the Yemeni state for years, plotted to blow up U.S.-bound airliners and claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attack in Paris on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people.
The United States has kept up a drone campaign against the militants, although it evacuated the last of its military and intelligence personnel from Yemen in March last year. Its attacks have killed some of AQAP’s top leaders, including its chief, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who was struck by a drone in June.
Last week, U.S. war planes killed at least 50 people and wounded 30 more in an attack on an al Qaeda training camp in the mountains of southern Yemen.
Al Qaeda’s local wing, known as Ansar al-Sharia, on Sunday acknowledged the March 22 attack, saying the recruits were being trained to fight Houthis who control most of northern Yemen.
“We note that the brigade which was struck by the Americans ... was preparing to join the mujahideen assigned to liberate al-Bayda province ... but it appears that the Americans and their agents were not pleased with that,” the group said in a rare statement posted on Twitter.
A coalition led by Saudi-Arabia has been trying to shore up Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis last year.
Al Qaeda militants, many of whom are drawn from Sunni tribes in south and eastern Yemen, have also been involved in the fighting against the Houthis, who hail from the Zaydi branch of Shi‘ite Islam, regarded by al Qaeda as heretics.
The United States has acknowledged using drones but declines to comment on specific attacks.
The United Nations, trying to build on a lull in fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border, said this week that the warring parties had agreed to a cessation of hostilities starting at midnight on April 10 followed by peace talks in Kuwait from April 18 as part of a fresh push to end the crisis following two rounds of failed talks last year.
The border truce came about after a prisoner swap between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.
In a further sign of the easing of tensions between the two sides, a Houthi spokesman, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, said on Sunday that his group had, for a second time, exchanged prisoners with Saudi Arabia.
“A first step of understanding and respect for the humanitarian aspect [of the conflict] was the exchange of prisoners today,” Abdul-Salam said in a statement posted on Facebook, adding that nine Saudi soldiers had been freed for 100 of its members captured inside Yemen.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition was not immediately available to comment on the report.
Reporting By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohamed Ghobari; Writing by Tom Finn; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Richard Balmforth