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Jan 26, 7:38 AM EST

Yemeni officials: US drone kills 3 alleged militants in first strike since president resigned

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Yemeni officials: US drone kills 3 alleged militants in first strike since president resigned

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- The first U.S. drone strike in Yemen since the start of the year killed three suspected al-Qaida fighters on Monday, signaling Washington's determination to keep striking the global network's most lethal branch despite the Yemeni president's resignation in the face of a Shiite rebel power grab.

Tribal and security officials in the central Yemeni province of Marib said a missile struck a vehicle carrying three people near the border with neighboring Shabwa province, an al-Qaida stronghold. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

It was the first strike since Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, placed embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet under house arrest in an attempt to force them to make political concessions. Hadi and his cabinet resigned in response.

The rebels had seized the capital Sanaa in September and control several other cities.

The prospect of a leaderless Yemen has raised concerns about Washington's ability to continue targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known. The group claimed the recent attack on a French satirical weekly and has mounted several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.

The Houthis are staunch opponents of al-Qaida, but as the Shiite rebels push into Sunni-dominated areas they risk driving locals into the arms of the insurgents.

The strike came one day after U.S. President Barack Obama defended his counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, saying his approach "is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have." He ruled out deploying U.S. forces there.

Last year at least 23 drone strikes killed 138 al-Qaida militants as well as some civilians, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks militant groups. U.S. officials rarely comment on the covert drone program.

The Houthis insist they merely want a new power-sharing arrangement with rival political factions. Critics say they want to retain Hadi as president in name only, while keeping an iron grip on power. They also accuse the Houthis of being a proxy of Iran, an allegation the rebels deny.

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