Government airstrikes in southern Yemen targeting al-Qaeda-linked militants accidentally killed 14 pro-government tribesmen, a Yemeni security official said on Saturday.
The botched airstrikes reflect the deteriorating security situation that has spread across this impoverished, heavily armed country since the popular uprising against long time President Ali Abdullah Saleh began six months ago.
Armed tribesmen are battling government forces in a number of areas around the country, and Islamist militants, some linked to al-Qaeda, have overrun entire towns in the country’s restive south.
The U.S. and other nations worry that al-Qaeda and other groups could exploit the chaos in Yemen to step up operations.
The airstrikes hit just east of the town of Zinjibar, near Yemen’s south coast, which Islamist militants overran earlier this year. Since then, government forces and armed tribesmen have been battling to push them out, causing regular casualties on both sides.
Security official Abdullah al-Jadana said on Saturday that men from the Fadl tribe advanced on Zinjibar, killing two militants and occupying a government communications building before at least three airstrikes hit the area late Friday, he said. Fourteen tribesmen were killed in the strike.
A military official confirmed the airstrikes and said preliminary information indicated a mistake had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military rules.
Tribal loyalties are paramount in Yemen’s provinces, where the central government exerts little control, and an errant airstrike could sap local support crucial to government forces.
Just north of the capital Sanaa, two days of clashes with the army left 17 anti-government tribesmen dead — prompting their powerful tribe to threaten attacks against Sanaa’s international airport.
Anti-government tribes in the mountainous Arhab region north of the airport have been battling Yemen’s army for months. The tribes, which have long complained of neglect, say the elite Republican Guard is shelling and bombing their villages, killing civilians.
The tribe has previously attacked local army bases and tried to prevent troops from entering the capital, Sanaa, where it feared they would attack protesters.
Sheik Hamid Assem said on Saturday that two days of fighting had killed 17 tribesman and dozens of soldiers.
Yemen’s Defence Ministry said in a statement that soldiers had been killed, but did not provide a number.
Late Friday, the Arhab tribe issued a statement warning it could strike the airport.
“The sons of the Arhab tribe will strike the Sanaa International Airport with all the available means of war in response to the attacks on them by air and the shelling of their villages and homes,” it said.
While the tribe likely cannot down an airliner, it could fire heavy weapons on the airport from mountains it controls nearby. It warned airlines not to use the airport “so that nothing bad happens to them.”