SANAA // Yemen will increasingly rely on US drone strikes to target Islamist militants threatening to disrupt a transfer of power this month, Yemeni government officials said.
The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is meant to hand over power to his vice president, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, on February 22.
The run up to the transfer is being overshadowed by growing protests, including within the military, which have grounded Yemen's air force across much of the country.
Two aides in Mr Hadi's office said they expected a rise in drone attacks against Al Qaeda militants.
The strikes will be intensified only if necessary, to ensure that militant groups do not expand in vulnerable areas, said one of the aides. Both asked to remain anonymous.
An early indication of the escalation came on Monday, when at least 11 militants were killed in Yemen's Abyan province by three separate strikes from drones, according to security officials in the province.
It was one of the biggest such strikes believed to have been carried out by the US in Yemen.
Yemeni officials and western diplomats fear suspected Al Qaeda militants, who control considerable territory in Abyan, may attempt to capitalise on the end of Mr Saleh's rule.
Months of near civil war to topple Mr Saleh, along with lawlessness and tribal rebellions, have created a vacuum for the militants.
Three weeks ago, they took over the town of Radaa, 173 kilometres south-east of Sanaa, and declared it an Islamic state.
The militants pulled out a few days later after negotiations with tribal chiefs.
Yemen's military capability to tackle the militants has been hampered by two weeks of protests against the air force chief, said General Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, the half-brother of the president.
Abdul Aziz Al Muhayya, the air force's commander of operations, who joined the protests last week, told The National that air force runways are out of service in the provinces of Aden, Taiz, and partially Sanaa.
"The majority of the air force is out of [the] government's hands now," he said.
"Our bases are somewhat handicapped," a senior Hadi aide said. "We cannot rule out using US drones if needed in an emergency situation when it comes to attacking Al Qaeda hideouts."
Drone attacks by the US in Yemen require the approval of Washington, the US ambassador in Sanaa, the counterterror office in Yemen, and the green light from Mr Hadi, Yemeni officials said.
The US has repeatedly used drones in Yemen to attack militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the US has said was behind the December 2009 plot to blow up a US airliner as it approached Detroit.
In one of most successful attacks for Washington's drone programme, a strike in Al Jawf province in September killed Anwar Al Awlaki, the American-born cleric who became a senior figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Mr Saleh was viewed by Washington as an important ally against AQAP and his government usually provided the intelligence for the targets, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal in December.
The US hopes the transfer of power will not affect Yemen's cooperation in targeting AQAP.
A US embassy official in Sanaa was optimistic that Mr Hadi, as the next president, would be cooperative in the fight against militancy and help build the security relations between all ethnic, tribal and regional groups.
The embassy official praised Mr Hadi and called him the right person for the job.
Mr Hadi will be the only candidate for presidential elections on February 21 as the country tries to bury divisions and rebuild.
Opposition parties have formed a unity government after Mr Saleh agreed to stand down and hand power to Mr Hadi. Mr Saleh has gone to the US for medical treatment.
But Al Qaeda experts remained cautious and called on the government to seek new strategies.
The Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Centre advised the new leadership to take the Al Qaeda threat seriously but also consider all options before using force.
Abdul Salam Mohammed, the director of Abaad, said the government must talk with the militants.
"No sides should be left out of dialogue. We do feel that militants would hand over arms if the government involves them in an economic plan," he said. "These militants are lost and also want a chance to live a peaceful life."
Yahya Al Arasi, an aide for Mr Hadi, said the vice president had used dialogue rather than violence to convince the militants to pull out of Radda last week, although the government had been ready to use the military.
"The fighters took over an entire town but days later and with the use of wisdom, they were forced to evacuate," said Mr Al Arasi.
"We did not need to use drones or force. The mission succeeded through simple dialogue tactics."