At least 55 al Qaeda militants were killed in a series of strikes on a training camp in southern Yemen over the weekend, the interior ministry said on Monday.
The statement said three senior al Qaeda members in the region were among those killed but did not elaborate, saying the identification process was ongoing.
Earlier, a top Yemeni official told AFP that "unprecedented" weekend operations were launched after information was received that "al Qaeda was plotting attacks on vital installations, military and security, as well as foreign interests in Yemen".
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been linked to a number of failed terror plots against the United States, and its leader recently appeared in a rare video in which he vowed to attack Western "crusaders" wherever they are.
The official, who requested anonymity, spoke after the latest in an accelerated series of raids against AQAP.
A Yemeni official said that shortly after midnight (9pm GMT Sunday) a drone fired a missile at an off-road vehicle carrying three men in southern Shabwa province, seen as an AQAP stronghold.
Witnesses confirmed that the vehicle had been completely destroyed and said they saw the charred remains of three individuals. Shortly after, commandos in an unmarked helicopter arrived to retrieve the bodies, they said.
"The operation seems to indicate that one of the dead could be an important leader of al Qaeda," one witness told AFP.
The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen.
US drones on Sunday killed more than 30 militants when they fired "several missiles" into an AQAP training camp in the rugged Wadi Ghadina region in the southern province of Abyan, a tribal chief said.
A defence ministry statement confirmed that "several" militants were killed in an attack on "training camps", including "foreigners".
The top official said Yemeni MiG-29 jet fighters took part in the raids.
The interior ministry said 10 people suspected of wanting to join al Qaeda had separately been arrested at a security roadblock in Shabwa.
On Saturday a drone strike in the central province of Baida killed 10 al Qaeda suspects and three civilians, the official Saba news agency reported.
Meanwhile, two gunmen on a motorbike shot dead an intelligence officer on Monday and wounded another in the capital, Sanaa, in an attack that "bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda", an official said.
In defence of drones
The weekend attacks came after AQAP chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi pledged in a rare video appearance to fight Western "crusaders" everywhere, apparently referring to the United States and other countries that have intervened in Muslim lands.
"We will continue to raise the banner of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and our war against the crusaders will continue everywhere in the world," he said.
The video, which showed Wuhayshi addressing militants, could have been shot in the Al-Kur mountain range, which stretches between Abyan, Shabwa and Baida provinces, and has become a stronghold for AQAP, tribal sources said.
Yemen's President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi has defended the use of drones, despite criticism from rights groups concerned about civilian casualties.
Drone strikes "have greatly helped in limiting al Qaeda activities, despite some mistakes which we are sorry about", Hadi told Al-Hayat newspaper last month, adding that the use of conventional, manned warplanes could result in "much bigger losses".
His comments had come after parliament – despite its limited powers – voted to ban drone strikes in response to attacks in December that hit two separate wedding processions.
The United Nations said 16 civilians were killed in those strikes.
The United States has defended the use of drones against al Qaeda, saying they allow it to target jihadists without sending soldiers into lawless areas where local authorities have little or no control.
Rights groups have criticised the drone programme in Yemen and other countries, and repeatedly urged the US administration to investigate strikes in which civilians have been killed.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-21