Drone strikes on Sunday and Monday killed at least 55 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, the latest reported assaults in an intensified aerial campaign against the group, the interior ministry said in a statement Monday.
The attacks, carried out by Yemen but reportedly backed by the U.S., targeted what Yemeni officials said was a major Al-Qaeda base hidden in the country's remote southern mountains. The ministry said that the strikes had killed three prominent figures, Mohammed Salem Abed Rabbo al-Mashibi, Fawaz Hussein al-Mahrak and Saleh Said Mahrak.
The sprawling base was a rare instance of a permanent infrastructure set up by Al-Qaeda's branch in the country, Yemeni security officials said. Built over the past months, it includes a training ground and storehouses for weapons, food and vehicles used by the group, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The ministry said identification of the dead was continuing, and that non-Yemeni Arab fighters were among those killed. It said the strikes hit in Wadi al-Khayala and two other locations, Lodiya and Ramtha.
The strikes came a day after a similar attack in central al-Bayda province killed nine Al-Qaeda suspects and three civilians, according to an official toll released late on Saturday.
Yemen is among a handful of countries where the United States acknowledges using drones, but it does not comment on the practice.
The U.S. has defended the drone campaign, which allows it to target Al-Qaeda without the use of ground forces in lawless areas where authorities claim that they cannot, or will not, act against the group.
The drone program has come under criticism from human-rights activists concerned over civilian casualties.
Yemen with help from the U.S. has been fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — regarded by Washington as one of the most lethal wings of the group. However, AQAP still manages to carry out significant attacks against security forces in the country.
Stability in Yemen is a top priority for the U.S. because of the country's location next to Saudi Arabia, an oil-exporting giant.
Riyadh also watches AQAP with concern because the branch was founded by citizens of both countries and has sworn to bring down its ruling al-Saud family.