SANA, Yemen -- Anger over the American drone campaign against militants in Yemen swelled Friday with word that most of those killed in a strike a day earlier were civilians in a wedding party.
The death toll reached 17 overnight, hospital officials in central Bayda province said Friday. Five of those killed were suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, but the remainder were unconnected with the militancy, Yemeni security officials said.
U.S. drone strikes have become commonplace in Yemen, where government measures have proven ineffectual against what is considered one of the most virulent Al Qaeda offshoots in the region.
However, civilian deaths like those in Thursday’s strike have inflamed popular sentiment against both the U.S. and the fragile central government.
The Obama administration generally does not publicly disclose individual strikes, though it has acknowledged the existence of the drone campaign. Human rights groups in recent months have called for greater transparency about drone strikes.
The incident is likely to fuel existing concerns in Congress and elsewhere about the White House's stated intention to move most of the drone program under military control. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, said in May that she believed the military had not been as patient or precise in drone strikes as the CIA has been.
In Yemen, the stakes are getting higher as violence increases. Al Qaeda-linked militants were suspected in an audacious Dec. 5 attack on the country’s well-fortified defense ministry, in which at least 56 people were killed, including some foreigners. Many of the dead were working at a hospital inside the complex.
Video footage of that attack, aired this week on state television, showed assailants methodically stalking medical personnel, including a wounded nurse. In one chilling scene, an attacker calmly approaches a group of civilians, then hurls a grenade at them, obscuring the camera lens with dust and debris from the explosion.
The capital, Sana, has been jittery in the aftermath of the attack on the defense ministry, with checkpoints springing up and international organizations on high alert.
Thursday’s drone attack, southeast of Sana, was the second in a week in Yemen. The remoteness of the area precluded precise immediate reports, but by Friday, security sources said most of the dead were traveling in a convoy of wedding guests.
In the gruesome aftermath, scorched vehicles and body parts were left scattered on the road.The incident illustrated the fact that many of the militants have tribal connections that make them likely to take part in village events, such as wedding celebrations.
Yemen’s struggling government has been battling separate insurgencies in the north and south, as well as unrest over domestic issues including a floundering economy.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Sana, and staff writer King from Cairo. Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.