SANAA, March 5 (Reuters) - Three suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in northwestern Yemen on Wednesday, in what local officials said was a strike by a U.S. drone.
The U.S.-allied country which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia has been raked by lawlessness and violence since 2011, when mass protests forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
The suspects were hit as they were traveling in a car in al Jawf province, the officials said, adding that a local al Qaeda leader, identified as Ali Saleh Jraim, was among those killed.
The United States has stepped up drone strikes as part of a campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), regarded by Washington as the most active wing of the network.
Yemen, AQAP's main stronghold, is among a handful of countries where the United States acknowledges using drones, although it does not comment on the practice. Washington views Yemen as a front line in its fight against al Qaeda.
Stabilising Yemen is an international priority amid fears of upheaval in a state that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.
The country is also struggling with demands by southern separatists for independence and an offensive by a Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement to extend its control over the north. (Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Reem Shamseddine; Editing by Rania El Gamal and Sophie Hares)