SANA, Yemen — Yemeni military officials said Saturday that two U.S. airstrikes killed at least 18 al-Qaida-linked militants in an evening attack on a central province that had been partly overrun by the group earlier this year.
The U.S. Central Command spokesman, Army Maj. T.G. Taylor, declined to comment on any American role in the strikes.
The U.S. considers the Yemen branch of al-Qaida one of its most dangerous. U.S. aircraft have targeted leaders of the branch in Yemen in the past, including a drone strike last year that killed American-born al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Residents of Bayda province, where the attack was carried out Friday evening, and a medical official there said 18 militants had been killed. They said al-Qaida quickly buried the bodies. However, the governor of Bayda said in a statement Saturday that the death toll had reached 30, including Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani and Afghan nationals.
Three Yemeni military officials said the United States was responsible for the strikes and that the Yemeni military does not have the capacity to carry out nighttime airstrikes and had no orders to do so.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula took advantage of a year of protests in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, to expand its reach. The uprising eventually led to the ouster of longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, but poorly equipped and trained Yemeni armed forces have failed to regain control of key towns from al-Qaida.
The airstrikes on Bayda came after a band of al-Qaida militants pushed into the province in January, capturing the town of Radda. They raised the black al-Qaida flag over an ancient castle that overlooks the town. They also stormed the local jail and freed about 150 inmates, including an unspecified number of militants loyal to al-Qaida.
Tribal leaders eventually forced the militants out of Radda and blamed security forces for turning a blind eye to the militants and allowing the security situation to deteriorate.
Al-Qaida continues to have a presence in the province, though, which gives it a territorial foothold closer than ever to the capital, where sleeper cells of the terror network are thought to be located.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, faces the burden of trying to dislodge the militants. He was sworn in as president Feb. 25 after taking over from Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than three decades.