A suspected U.S. drone strike on a car in eastern Yemen killed three men believed to be al-Qaida militants on Monday, officials said, suggesting U.S. security operations are continuing despite a political crisis in the volatile Arab country.
It comes a day after U.S. President Barack Obama defended counter-terrorism operations amid political instability in the country.
The unmanned aircraft targeted a vehicle in Yemen's eastern desert, according to tribal sources in the region. Meanwhile, in the capital Sana'a, uncertainty remains following a take-over by Houthi rebels last week.
U.S.-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government quit on Thursday in a confrontation with an Iranian-allied armed group, depriving Washington of a staunch ally in its campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
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Hadi has for years allowed the United States to carry out drone strikes targeting AQAP. The United States is the only country known to be carrying out such strikes in Yemen.
AQAP claimed responsibility for deadly shootings in Paris on January 7 and U.S. officials fear al-Qaida will gain strength in Yemen's current power vacuum.
The upheaval and subsequent resignations by the Yemen's president and his Cabinet prompted the United States to suspend consular services at its embassy in Sana'a beginning Monday.
"We are continuously analyzing the security conditions and will resume consular operations as soon as our analysis indicates we are able to do so safely," read a statement on the mission's website.
The failure of a truce between Hadi's government and the Houthi militia last week triggered a power vacuum and sparked media reports that Washington would suspend counter-terror operations until the situation stabilized.
Two U.S. security officials said on Friday the collapse of the U.S.-backed government had left America's counter-terrorism campaign "paralyzed," dealing a major setback to U.S. efforts to undermine one of al-Qaida's most potent wings.
But Obama dismissed those claims Sunday, saying the United States would continue to pursue "high value targets inside of Yemen."
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters Monday despite the instability in Yemen, "Our commitment to hunt and kill AQAP where they are is unchanged."
And Obama on Sunday defended his drone-based strategy against AQAP, saying the alternative would be to deploy U.S. troops, which was not sustainable.
Shi'ite Muslim Houthi militiamen seized the capital Sana'a in September, becoming Yemen's dominant political faction, and now run the capital and several other parts of the country. Last week they seized the presidential palace and besieged Hadi in his residence in a dispute about the constitution that ended with Hadi's resignation.
The fighters, bedecked in tribal robes and automatic weapons, have set up checkpoints throughout the city.
On Monday, Houthi gunmen and supporters stormed the capital's main university to detain several of the 200 or so protesters demonstrating against their rule.
A group of activists who took part in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, which ousted Hadi's predecessor, veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, warned in an open letter on Monday that the Houthi takeover could destroy the Yemeni state and dash their hopes for a transition to democracy.
“This path increases the chances of armed conflict which can only result in a civil war and fragment the country on fanatical sectarian and regional lines, putting an end to the dream of Yemenis for a civil state,” the activists wrote.
The Houthis, from the remote northern mountains, made steady gains southward last year and finally seized Sana'a, aided, diplomats say, by the inaction of army units loyal to Saleh.
While the Houthis said their takeover was a second revolution aimed at ousting corrupt officials, some activists fear they are an Iranian proxy working with the former president to settle scores and become new kingmakers.
“Just as in 2011, we are using peaceful means in confronting these militias,” said Fayez Noman, a socialist protester near Sanaa University, standing near the center of the old uprising dubbed “Change Square” now sealed off by gunmen.
“We will continue to take to the streets every day. We have no other option.”
Fanning out to majority Sunni areas in the country's west and center, the Houthis have met resistance from tribes allied with AQAP, leading to an uptick in deadly sectarian combat.
Six Houthi fighters were killed in ambush on their car by local gunmen on Monday, tribal sources said.
Some material from Reuters was used in this report. VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.