US airstrike kills 6 Islamic militants in Yemen

AHMED AL-HAJ - Associated Press
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Anti-government protestors, shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, July 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hamoud)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A U.S. airstrike on a Yemeni police station overrun by Islamic militants killed at least six fighters Thursday, a Yemeni security official said.

The strike targeted a region where radical groups believed to have al-Qaida links have exploited the country's political upheaval to take over entire towns.

A five-month-old popular uprising seeking to oust longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh has led to a security breakdown across much of Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country and home to an active al-Qaida branch. In recent months, radical Islamist groups have overrun two towns and other areas in the country's southern Abyan province, the site of Thursday's strike.

The U.S. fears al-Qaida will exploit chaos in Yemen to step up operations there and has been aiding the Yemeni government's anti-terrorism efforts.

Yemeni security officials said Thursday's strike hit a police station in the town of Mudiya that militants had taken over, killing six who were sleeping inside. Security officials also said there were reports of people being wounded, but did not have details.

Resident Mohammed al-Mashraqi said weapons stored inside caused the station to catch fire after the strike. Dozens of militants rushed to the scene to evacuate the wounded and dig search the rubble for the dead, he said.

Security officials said the wounded were taken to a hospital in the militant stronghold town of Jaar, 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest. Yemen army units have been trying to dislodge militants from there and the nearby town of Zinjibar, causing regular casualties on both sides.

The officials said the strike was carried out by an American plane because Yemeni planes aren't equipped for nighttime strikes.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa were not immediately available for comment.

In Yemen's capital of Sanaa, followers of a radical Islamic cleric tore down banners advocating a state with equality for all its citizens. The banners had been draped across a stage in a main square, where anti-Saleh protests have been taking place.

Ahmed Seif Hashid, one of the protesters, said followers of Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, have also rejected a call for a mass rally advocating such an egalitarian state. Al-Zindani followers demanded that the slogan be amended, to add the phrase "with an Islamic background."

Al-Zindani is the spiritual leader of the country's fundamentalist Islamic opposition party, Islah, and Yemen's most influential cleric. Al-Zindani is also thought by the United States to be a one-time spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden. He has been placed on the U.S. list of terrorist financiers, and is the subject of travel and financial sanctions by the U.S. and the United Nations.

Abdel Hadi al-Azizi, an anti-government protester in Sanaa, said al-Zindani's followers "only represent themselves and don't represent the masses rallying the square."