A U.S. drone strike in Yemen has killed three people suspected of being linked to al-Qaeda. It was the second such attack in three days, a Yemeni military official and tribal sources said.
The official said the attack took place early on Tuesday in the town of Saeed in the Shabwah province and targeted a vehicle carrying the suspects.
"The car in which the three were travelling - two Yemenis and a Saudi - was blown to pieces and all of them were killed outright," a tribal source told the AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One of the suspects was a known Saudi member of al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen, other tribal sources told the Associated Press.
Another raid in the southern province on Saturday killed six suspected al-Qaeda members.
The U.S., the only country to operate drones in the region, has increased its use of them against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen over the past two years.
Washington regards al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a merger of fighters in Yemen and neighboring Saudi Arabia, as the worldwide network's most active and dangerous branch.
Several AQAP leaders have been killed in U.S. drone strikes, most recently the network's deputy leader Saeed al-Shehri whose death was confirmed by the group on July 17.
AQAP took advantage of the weakness of Yemen's central government during an uprising against now-ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 to seize large swathes of territory across the south and east.
Opponents of the former regime say Saleh allowed al-Qaeda to gain ground as a means of holding onto power. Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, told The Nation that he turned over territory to them “because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.”
Washington has given strong support to the efforts of Saleh's successor, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, to reassert central-government control.
Drone strikes, widely unpopular in Yemen, have been condemned by rights groups and the U.N. Top U.S. advisers and generals have also expressed concerns with the drone program in recent months, calling it counterproductive.
Retired Gen. James Cartwright, a close aide to President Obama, has in recent months come out forcefully against the drone program, pointing to the resentment it causes among local populations and warning that it produces “blowback,” or attacks against the United States.
In a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Gen. Cartwright said, “We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
A Senate hearing on the drone program held in April included testimony from Yemeni activist and journalist Farea al-Muslimi, who warned that the program is angering Yemenis and empowering militants. Al-Muslimi testified that AQAP members can be apprehended without the use of drones.
One such militant, Hamid al-Radmi, was killed in a drone strike that targeted al-Muslimi’s village. "The Yemeni government could easily have found and arrested him," al-Muslimi said during the hearing. "Even the local government could have captured him if the U.S. had told them to do so."
Recently, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) – funded by the U.S. – passed a recommendation to criminalize U.S. drone strikes in the country. The NDC was established shortly after Saleh’s ouster with the aim of facilitating a transition to democracy. Its members represent different groups within Yemen.
The recommendation is unlikely to pass into law, but is viewed as a symbolic gesture in a country where anger against the U.S. drone program is mounting.
Meanwhile, President Obama is scheduled to host President Hadi for White House talks on Thursday.
His visit comes just days after pardoning a prominent Yemeni journalist, Abdelala Shayie, jailed for three years on charges that he aided al-Qaeda. Rights groups say Shayie was jailed as retaliation for having exposed U.S. involvement in an attack that resulted in numerous civilian deaths. Former President Saleh originally attributed the attack to Yemeni forces in order to shield the U.S. from public scrutiny.
Saleh had cleared the journalist for release shortly after his trial. However, Obama intervened with a phone call urging for Shayie’s continued detainment.
International rights groups, including Amnesty International, condemned U.S. interference in the highly publicized case. "Intense political pressure applied by the USA appeared to be a blatant attempt to override the judicial process in another country," Amnesty International said in a statement.
Al Jazeera and wire services