*** This is precisely why you should not rely so heavily on technology to do this kind of job. As we have seen many, many times - these strikes cause more long-term harm than good. Beef up the HUMINT sections people! MS ***
SANAA (Reuters) - An airstrike in Yemen targeting al Qaeda missed its mark on Tuesday and killed a mediator by mistake, prompting members of his tribe to blow up a crude oil pipeline in clashes that followed, a provincial official said.
A Yemeni news website seen as aligned with the opposition said the strike was carried out by a drone, a weapon that the Yemen military is not believed to have. U.S. forces helping Yemen fight al Qaeda have used drones in the past, but a U.S. diplomat declined to say if the United States was involved.
The strike could heighten anti-U.S. sentiment and broaden al Qaeda's appeal among some influential Yemeni tribes, threatening efforts to stabilize a country neighboring oil power Saudi Arabia and busy international shipping lanes, analysts said.
The botched bombing of a U.S. airliner on December 25, claimed by al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, spurred Washington to step up security help to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government, which faces multiple grave challenges apart from militancy.
The Yemeni mediator, who had been trying to persuade members of the global militant group to surrender, was killed instantly in a pre-dawn strike on his car in Yemen's mountainous Maarib province that also killed three other people.
"Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Maarib, was killed with a number of his relatives and travel companions in an airstrike targeting the Wadi Obeida area, where al Qaeda elements are present," the provincial official said.
"The deputy governor was on a mediation mission to persuade al Qaeda elements to hand themselves over to the authorities, but it seems that the airstrike missed its target and struck his car, killing him instantly in addition to three companions," he added, declining to be named. Two others were wounded.
The strike provoked clashes between the army and members of Shabwani's tribe, and the tribesmen attacked the pipeline that ferries crude oil from Maarib, east of the capital Sanaa, to the Red Sea coast, the official said.
Yemen, which borders the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, moved to the forefront of Western security concerns after al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional arm claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December.
The United States and Saudi Arabia want Yemen, which is trying to end a conflict with Shi'ite rebels in the north while separatist sentiment bubbles over in the south, to focus its efforts on fighting al Qaeda, seen as a greater global threat.
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A statement from a Yemeni High Security Council source expressed sorrow for the death of Shabwani and called him a martyr, but did not specify who carried out the strike or what type of aircraft was used.
A U.S. diplomat would not discuss the attack. Washington backed Sanaa's fight against al Qaeda by training Yemeni forces, sharing information and providing equipment, and recognized al Qaeda in Yemen was a threat to both countries, he said.
"So we are working together. The Yemeni forces always take the lead in operations carried out in Yemen using some of that support that we have provided for them through training and information sharing..." the diplomat said.
Asked directly if the U.S. was involved in the strike, he said: "If you want operation-specific details you need to contact the Yemeni government."
Yemen and U.S. military targeted al Qaeda figures in Yemen, the ancestral home of the network's leader Osama bin Laden, after the September 11, 2001, attacks. A CIA drone fired a missile that killed al Qaeda's leader in Yemen in 2002.
Yemen's foreign minister said earlier this year that Yemen needed logistical support to help fight al Qaeda but would not allow foreign covert operations against the group on its soil.
In Maarib province where Tuesday's airstrike took place, clashes with the mediator's tribe spread from the countryside to Maarib town, where dozens of tribal gunmen opened fire on government buildings. The army was returning fire. At least seven people were injured, a local official said.
Security officials said angry tribes blocked the main road between Sanaa and Maarib, preventing trucks carrying cooking gas and petrol from reaching the capital.
Tuesday's strike had likely intended to hit Ayed al-Shabwani, an al Qaeda leader whose farm in Maarib province was the target of a strike in January, the provincial official said. Shabwani is a relative of the mediator who was killed.
Shipping companies said there was no impact on exports from the attack on the pipeline, which ferries crude to the Ras Isa offshore export terminal. Authorities could not immediately reach the affected area.