Jan. 31, 2012 -- At least nine militants, including four men believed to be local leaders with ties to al Qaeda, were killed late Monday in an air strike in Yemen, according to local and international reports.
Residents in the Yemeni province of Abyan told Reuters the rockets appeared to come from a drone and struck two vehicles as they were traveling in the region. A tribal leader said the four high-level targets killed were prominent figures in al Qaeda's Yemen branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Citing unnamed security officials, the Associated Press reported the aerial bombs struck one vehicle and a school where the militants were hiding and that they were dropped by the United States. A correspondent with a local news outlet, Mareb Press, confirmed from witnesses that a strike had taken place in the southern region, but did not provide further details.
Officials with the Department of Defense declined to comment for this report, but told the AP they were "checking on reports."
The reported strike comes as AQAP has made significant gains in the embattled country. Earlier this month, officials said the militants had taken over a large city just 100 miles south of the nation's capital and was in control of seven major population centers in the nation.
AQAP appears to be taking advantage of intense political turmoil in the country to slip into strategic population centers, sometimes unopposed. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, long a beneficiary of U.S. aid and an ally in the fight against al Qaeda, signed an agreement in November agreeing to step down after 33 years in power. Voters will choose his replacement in a February election.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also uses the name Ansar al-Sharia, or the Army of Islamic Law, in its battle against government forces. Fighters have allegedly sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian co-founder of al Qaeda who took command of the terror group after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last May.