SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Five suspected al Qaeda militants were killed when Yemeni fighter planes targeted their vehicle in the southern province of Shabwa, military sources said, as part of a sustained army offensive against Islamist insurgents.
Yemen is waging a U.S.-backed campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the global jihadi network's regional wing. AQAP has mounted dozens of attacks on government officials, security forces and foreigners in recent months.
Yemen is a U.S. strategic ally whose instability concerns neighbouring oil-exporting giant Saudi Arabia as well as Western nations worried that al Qaeda could use the weakly governed and impoverished country as a launchpad for international attacks.
A series of air strikes, apparently carried chiefly by U.S. drones, killed some 65 militants in late April. There has since been a concerted air-and-ground army campaign focused on the southern provinces of Shabwa and Abyan that government authorities say have killed dozens of militants.
Tuesday's attack appeared to be carried out by Yemeni fighter jets. "Army forces tracked al Qaeda elements who were on their way to transport weapons from Shabwa to Marib and a fighter plane struck the truck, killing the five al Qaeda elements," a military source told Reuters.
Yemen's defence ministry website also cited on Tuesday a military source as saying that an al Qaeda militant known as Abu Jandal was killed in Shabwa as well as another insurgent known as Abu Fatima, who died of wounds from fighting in Hadramawt.
The militants have been blamed for waging a series of retaliatory attacks in the capital. On Sunday, the interior ministry said three gunmen were killed after they tried to attack a security checkpoint near Sanaa's presidential palace.
But on Tuesday, the state news agency quoted an official source in the Supreme Military Committee as saying that the three killed were, in fact, civilian bystanders.
The source said the militants had tried to attack the checkpoint and fired on security guards who fired back, and that the three civilians, two Yemenis and a Saudi, were caught in the crossfire.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)