Missiles fired by a U.S. drone slammed into a convoy of vehicles traveling to a wedding party in central Yemen on Thursday, killing at least 13 people, Yemeni security officials said.
The officials said the attack took place in the city of Radda, the capital of Bayda province, and left charred bodies and burned cars on the road. The city, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda militants, witnessed deadly clashes early last year between armed tribesmen backed by the military and Al Qaeda gunmen in an attempt to drive them out of the city.
There were no immediate details on who was allegedly killed in the strike, and there were conflicting reports about whether armed fighters were traveling with the wedding convoy.
A military official said initial information indicated that the drone mistook the wedding party for an Al-Qaeda convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.
One of the three security officials, however, said Al-Qaeda fighters were suspected to have been traveling with the wedding convoy.
The CIA declined to comment on the reported strike. While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not usually talk about individual strikes.
If further investigations determine that the victims were all civilians, the attack could fuel an outburst of anger against the U.S. and the government in Sanaa among a Yemeni public already opposed to American drone strikes.
Civilian deaths have bred resentment on a local level, sometimes undermining U.S. efforts to turn the public against the fighters. The backlash in Yemen is still not as large as in Pakistan, where there is heavy pressure on the government to force limits on strikes — but public calls for a halt to strikes are starting to emerge.
In October, two U.N. human rights investigators called for more transparency from the U.S. and other countries about their drone programs, saying secrecy is the biggest obstacle to determining the civilian tolls of such strikes.
The missile attacks in Yemen are part of a joint U.S.-Yemeni campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington has called the most dangerous branch of the global network.
Thursday's drone strike is the second since a massive car bombing and coordinated assault on Yemen's military headquarters killed 56 people, including foreigners. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for U.S. drone strikes that have killed dozens of the group's leaders.
Security forces in the Yemeni capital boosted their presence Thursday, setting up checkpoints across the city and sealing off the road to the president's residence in response to what the Interior Ministry called threats of "terrorist plots" targeting vital institutions and government buildings.
Meanwhile, in the country's restive north, ultraconservative Sunni Muslim fighters and rebels belonging to a branch of Shia Islam battled each other with artillery and machine guns in clashes that killed more than 40 people, security officials said.
The violence between Islamic Salafi fighters and Houthi rebels has raged for weeks in Yemen's northern province of Saada, but the latest sectarian clashes marked an expansion of the fighting to the neighboring province of Hagga. The government brokered a cease-fire last month to try to end the violence, but both sides have repeatedly broken the truce.
Officials said clashes began when ultraconservative Salafis took over a Houthi stronghold in a mountainous area near the border with Saudi Arabia. The officials said that most of the casualties were on the Houthi side.
They said that Salafis, however, accused Houthis of trying to infiltrate their strongholds in the town of Fagga.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the fighting publicly.
Houthis launched an insurgency in 2004 against autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 after a popular uprising against his rule. Over the course of the Houthi rebellion, hundreds of people were killed and an estimated 125,000 uprooted until the rebels and the government struck a fragile cease-fire in 2010.
But the north remained restive despite the truce, and fighting flared along another fault line in November, after Houthis accused Salafis of attempting to gain a foothold in their territory by spreading their brand of Islam.
The rebels say that their community of Shia Muslims suffers discrimination and neglect, and that the government has allowed Sunni extremists too strong a voice in the country. Hard-line Sunnis consider Shias to be heretics.
The Associated Press