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Source: 'Massive and unprecedented' attack targets al Qaeda in Yemen

From Mohammed Jamjoom

(CNN) -- An operation targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is under way in the Yemeni provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, a high-level Yemeni government official being briefed on the strikes told CNN on Monday.

At least 65 suspected al Qaeda militants have been killed in Yemen -- many in those two provinces -- since Saturday, including 55 on Sunday and Monday, two Yemeni government officials said. The other 10 were killed in a Saturday drone strike in nearby al-Bayda province, an attack that also killed three civilians, a high-level Yemeni government official said.

The high-level official said the scale of the strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate is "massive and unprecedented."

The ongoing operation included a Sunday night ambush in which Yemeni special forces killed militants believed to be high-value targets in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the official said. Yemeni commandos exchanged gunfire with and killed militants who were in a vehicle on a highway in the southern Shabwa province, according to the official.

Yemeni forces collected the bodies and will perform DNA testing to determine the militants' identities, the official said.

Also Sunday, suspected U.S. drone strikes targeted al Qaeda fighters in Yemen for the second time in two days, killing at least a dozen, the government official said.

The predawn drone strikes targeted a mountain ridge in the southern province of Abyan, the official said. It's the same area where scores of followers of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had gathered recently to hear from Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the terrorist network's Yemeni branch and the global organization's "crown prince," the official said.

"It's too early to tell how many militants were killed, but the number is at least a dozen," the official said. The targets included "foreign nationals," the official said, but he provided no details of what their nationalities were. Nor was it clear whether any high-value targets were among the dead and wounded, he said.

Some of the slain militants were Saudi citizens, two Yemeni government officials said Monday.

Yemen's state news agency SABA said three strikes targeted an al Qaeda training camp in the village of Wadi al Khila, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of the capital, Sanaa. The fighters were "preparing to launch attacks against Yemeni and foreign interests in the area," according to a statement from the country's Supreme Security Committee.

"These strikes destroyed the training facility completely and killed both Yemeni and foreign members," it said.

The high-level Yemeni government official said Sunday's raid was a joint U.S.-Yemeni operation. He would not confirm whether drones were used in the attack, but the United States is the only country known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen. As a rule, U.S. officials don't comment on those strikes.

But the official said the area is so rugged and mountainous that Yemeni troops would have faced heavy losses in any ground assault. Al Qaeda operatives had fled to the area after a 2012 push by government troops, backed by the United States, he said.

The high-level official said it would take time to clarify the details of Sunday's strikes: whether the raids targeted camps, vehicles on the move or both, the full death toll among the militants and whether there were any civilian casualties.

But other Yemeni officials, who asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the media, said there was growing frustration within the government about the lack of clarity and expressed concern that some of the information the military is reporting may be propaganda.

"I'm worried this is an attempt to convince Yemenis that the U.S. and Yemen have turned a corner and are in the process of destroying AQAP," one of those other officials said. "At this hour, the numbers of militants being reported as being killed keeps changing, and we still aren't sure if any civilians have been killed or wounded in these strikes."

He added, "Yemenis are smart enough to doubt initial reports of this type. If this does turn out to be exaggeration, it will make the people here trust their government even less than they do and fuel growing anger over the drone program."

The United States first used armed drones to pick off an al Qaeda operative in Yemen in 2002. Strikes on suspected al Qaeda figures resumed in 2009, with more than 92 drone attacks since then, as well as a further 15 U.S. strikes using other forms of weaponry such as cruise missiles, according to a count by the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank that tracks the raids.

As of Monday, U.S. drone and air strikes have killed an estimated 753 to 965 people in Yemen, of whom the large majority were militants, but at least 81 were civilians, according to the New America Foundation study.
 Journalist Hakim Almasmari contributed to this report.
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