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Al Qaeda leader dead in US drone strike on Yemen

At least eight other suspected militants killed in operation

SANA, Yemen — A drone aircraft fired into a group of people preparing to attack Yemeni troops Thursday, killing a man identified as a leader of the local branch of Al Qaeda and at least eight other potential attackers, according to Yemeni and security officials, who said the drone was US-operated.

The strike was in an area less than a mile from a Yemeni brigade position in the southern province of Abyan, the officials said. One of the dead was identified as Nader Al Shaddadi, one of the top leaders of Al Qaeda in the region. An explosive belt wrapped around his waist was defused by members of the brigade.

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The officials spoke in return for anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Local residents identified four other casualties but said the remaining four were not known to them.

The use of drones in Yemen has been contentious, with critics and some US government officials saying they cause civilian casualties and can fuel anti-American sentiment.

US military strikes in Yemen started in late 2009. They were intended to target terrorism suspects, particularly members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the network’s branch in Yemen.

The drone program was suspended in May 2010, partly because of concern about civilian deaths, including the killing of a Yemeni deputy provincial governor. Late last month, however, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi endorsed the program during a visit to Washington, saying Yemen’s air force was incapable of carrying out missions at night and praising the drones’ precision as ‘‘unmatched by the human brain.’’

In a separate incident Thursday, two people were killed and three were injured when a missile stored in a building used by Yemen’s military accidentally touched off explosions at a training facility in the capital Sana, military and medical sources said.

The Ministry of Defense said in a statement on its website that the explosions were accidental.

One soldier was killed and another person died in a residential compound nearby. The huge blasts brought panicked students at nearby schools into the street.

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