By Phil Stewart and Mohammed Mukhashaf
WASHINGTON/ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - The United States said it carried out more than 20 precision strikes in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Thursday, in the first major operations against the group since a January raid by U.S. commandos.
The Pentagon said the strikes, which were first reported by Reuters, targeted al Qaeda militants, heavy weapons systems, equipment, infrastructure and the group's fighting positions.
They were carried out in the Yemeni governorates of Abyan, Al Bayda and Shabwah.
"The strikes will degrade the AQAP's ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting," Navy Captain Jeff Davis said, using an acronym for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The strikes come a month since a Jan. 29 raid against AQAP. The operation, the first of its kind authorized by new President Donald Trump, was hailed as a success by the White House and other U.S. officials. Still, critics questioned the value and effectiveness of an mission which killed women and children, as well as several militants and a Navy SEAL.
Trump, citing information from his defense secretary, told Congress on Tuesday that the raid yielded valuable intelligence that would "lead to many more victories in the future."
Still, one U.S. official suggested Thursday's strikes - which included use of U.S. drones and manned aircraft - had been in the planning stages before the January raid.
AT LEAST NINE DEAD
The U.S. military did not estimate the number of militants killed in the strikes, but residents and local officials in southern Yemen said that at least nine suspected al Qaeda militants died in two separate incidents.
They said four men believed to belong to al Qaeda died in a strike on a building in al-Saeed, an area of Shabwa province home to the al-Awaleq, the extended clan of Anwar al-Awlaki, a militant and U.S. citizen killed in by U.S. drone in 2011.
Another five suspected al Qaeda fighters died when a missile fired by a drone struck a vehicle carrying weapons while traveling on a road between al-Wadie district and the area of Moujan, in Abyan province, some 40 km (25 miles) away, according to a local official.
In a separate incident, residents and local officials in the Gulf of Aden town of Shuqra in southern Yemen also reported air strikes in an adjacent mountain area where hundreds of al Qaeda militants are believed to be based.
They said they heard loud explosions early on Thursday morning in al-Maraqisha, a rugged mountainous area where al Qaeda militants took refuge last year after they were driven out of Yemeni cities they had captured earlier.
There were no immediate details available on damages or casualties caused by those strikes.
INTELLIGENCE ON AQAP
AQAP boasts one of the world's most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and it has been a persistent concern to the U.S. government ever since a 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
The militant group has taken also advantage of a civil war pitting the Iran-aligned Houthis against the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to try to widen its control and influence in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country, one of the poorest in the Middle East.
The conflict, which U.N. officials say has killed more than 10,000 people, has also forced the United States to scale back its presence in Yemen, degrading U.S. intelligence about the group, officials say.
A senior U.S. official said intelligence collected in the Jan. 29 raid however provided valuable insight into AQAP's explosives manufacturing, targeting, training and recruitment practices.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo, writing by Phil Stewart and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)