ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Two mid-level al Qaeda leaders were killed on Thursday in an apparent airstrike on their car in a remote province of Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, witnesses said.
Yemen’s defense ministry confirmed that two al Qaeda leaders were killed in a province where the militant network is active, identifying them as two brothers, Musa’id and Abdullah Mubarak al-Daghari. But it gave no details as to how they died.
“The car was passing through the Abdan region in Shabwa province when a missile was fired at it, causing it to explode and burn completely. We learned afterward that two men were inside,” one witness told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The attack follows the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan on Monday, and took place as Yemen is gripped by a three-month-old standoff between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and pro-democracy protesters bent on his immediate ouster.
The United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia want the crisis resolved, fearing a protracted standoff could lead to clashes between rival military units that could ignite chaos across the country which al Qaeda could exploit.
The defense ministry said the brothers, whom it described as dangerous, were killed “while being pursued by security forces seeking to arrest them.” The pair were accused by Yemeni authorities of involvement in recent bomb attacks.
Some nearby residents said they saw a drone in the air at the time of the killing and that drones had been seen repeatedly in the area in recent days. Others reported seeing a rocket followed by an explosion on the ground.
A U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in November said the United States was carrying out air raids on al Qaeda targets in Yemen, and that Saleh agreed to conceal this from the public.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman, asked if Washington was involved in Thursday’s strike, had no immediate comment.
Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, formed from the 2009 merger of the group’s Yemeni and Saudi wings, has vowed to bleed U.S. resources with small, cheap attacks that force the West to spend billions of dollars to guard against.
It tried but failed to kill Saudi Arabia’s security chief in 2009 and claimed responsibility for a foiled attempt the same year to blow up a Detroit-bound plane. It was also blamed for bombs found in cargo en route to the United States in 2010.
Yemen, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda, declared open war on the Yemen-based arm in January 2010, stepping up air strikes in which civilians as well as militants were killed.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Angus MacSwan