By Hakim Almasmari
SANAA, Yemen (CNN) — U.S. drone strikes targeted al Qaeda hideouts in southern Yemen on Wednesday, killing at least nine suspected militants, three senior security officials said.
No senior al Qaeda leaders died in the attack in the Shabwa province town of Azzan, the officials said. The strikes’ targets included a home suspected of harboring militants, the officials said.
The defense ministry said 30 people died in Azzan airstrikes, but did not clarify whether all the fatalities were caused by the drone strikes or Yemeni forces, who are also conducting airstrikes in the area.
Militants fled to Azzan after they lost control of Abyan province Tuesday, sending the town’s residents fleeing over fear of more strikes.
“Azzan is where we expect the militants to seek shelter after the fall of Jaar. It’s their last stronghold in Yemen,” said a senior security official, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
At least 14 U.S. drone strikes were conducted over the past two days in both southern provinces, security officials said.
One of the strikes targeted the convoy of Jalal Beleidi, a top commander of the Ansar al-Sharia islamist militant group.
Beleidi, who was fleeing Jaar on his way to the coastal town of Shaqra, escaped unharmed, the officials said.
Yemeni forces are closely patrolling major towns in the province in search for militants, witnesses said.
The defense ministry said the road linking Abyan to Aden reopened after militants lost control of the the province.
Yemen is sending hundreds of troops to Jaar to ensure it maintains control of the town, officials said.
Three hundred al Qaeda militants fled Tuesday, said Jamal al-Aqel, the governor of Abyan, and urged the government to help rebuild the province.
More than 150,000 Abyan residents were displaced last year after fleeing the war. They are currently living in shelters in neighboring Aden and Lahj provinces.
The new government plans to search for al Qaeda sleeper cells in major Yemeni cities, said Ali Saeed Obaid, a spokesman for the military committee, the country’s highest military authority.