SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's president on Wednesday said that the death toll of this week's military campaign against al-Qaida has reached over 60 suspected militants, including several of the group's leaders.
Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's remarks aired on state TV came as a high ranking security official said authorities are examining DNA samples of the dead to determine their identities.
Earlier, a government official told The Associated Press that the results of the DNA test were forthcoming, declining to give names of the leaders targeted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
On Sunday and Monday, the military, reportedly backed by U.S. drone strikes, hit a major al-Qaida base in the remote southern mountains, killing 55 militants. The bombed sites included a training ground, a storehouse for weapons and food as well as vehicles. The base is in a remote mountain valley called Wadi al-Khayala in the rugged Mahfad region at the border between Abyan province, and the neighboring provinces of Shabwa and al-Bayda.
Hadi was quoted by state TV as saying, "the heroic operations by the armed forces and special security forces against terrorists' groupings ... have achieved strong victory against these remnants." He did not give names of the leaders killed. He urged security forces to chase terrorism to achieve stability.
The assault appeared to be a significant escalation in the U.S. and Yemeni campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group's powerful branch in the southern Arabian nation. The United States has been hitting al-Qaida positions in the country heavily with drone strikes the past two years, trying to cripple the group after it was driven out of several southern cities it took over in 2011.
But the group has proven highly resilient, spreading around the country and working from mountain areas. In a show of boldness, a video recently posted on Islamic militant websites showed the group's leader Nasser al-Wahishi meeting openly with dozens of militants in Abyan.
The group's fighters overran several towns and cities in southern Yemen in 2011, taking advantage of the political chaos amid a popular uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was later driven from power.
A major 2012 government offensive, aided by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, drove out al-Qaida militants from southern towns they took control of following the security vacuum a year earlier during a popular uprising against Yemen's longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The group remained largely mobile and used rugged mountain areas for cover, often with approval from some tribal leaders.