updated 12/17/2009 2:48:31 PM ET 2009-12-17T19:48:31

Yemeni security forces struck several al-Qaida hide-outs and training sites Thursday, killing at least 34 suspected militants, including four would-be suicide bombers who planned attacks at home and abroad, officials said. At least 17 suspected militants were arrested.

It was an unusually direct assault against al-Qaida by Yemen, which is under U.S. pressure to act more vigorously against the terrorist network on its territory.

An impoverished nation on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has struggled to deal with al-Qaida's growing presence in its mountains and deserts as well as its homegrown Islamic extremism.

Al-Qaida militants, including fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, have established sanctuaries among a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly ones in three provinces bordering Saudi Arabia known as the "triangle of evil" because of the heavy militant presence, according to Yemeni authorities.

Thursday's operations were aimed at al-Qaida in an area not far from the capital, San'a, and in the southern province of Abyan.

Training camp targeted
In the south, airstrikes followed by a ground operation targeted a training camp and killed 30 suspected militants, said Saleh el-Shamsy, a security official for Abyan province.

Other local security officials and several witnesses said civilians were also caught up in the government offensive in the southern province. The security officials said the number of dead had reached 52, of which only seven were known in their communities to be al-Qaida operatives.

Their claims could not be independently verified.

Airstrikes destroyed several civilian homes and troops stormed others, mistaking them for al-Qaida hide-outs, they said. The bodies of seven women and children were recovered from the rubble, said one witness, Mohammed Saleh al-Kathimi.

The other witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals for speaking about civilian casualties. The security officials demanded anonymity because they were not authorized spokesmen.

Two hospitals in the area reported receiving 26 injured civilians, most of them women and children.

The streets of some towns in the area were empty except for armed gunmen.

In the fighting northeast of the capital, in a district called Arhab, government forces killed four would-be suicide bombers and arrested 17 suspected militants, the Interior Ministry said.

"These individuals (suicide bombers) planned to strike at schools as well as interests at home and abroad," the ministry said, without elaborating.

Weak central government
Yemen has a weak central government with little control over the nation's mountains and deserts. With many areas virtually lawless, easy access to firearms and rampant poverty, Yemen has become a haven of choice for al-Qaida operatives.

The government has for years closely cooperated with the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida, although its effort has often been hampered by complex political and tribal considerations.

Yemen is also in a strategic location. It is next door to some of the world's most important oil producing nations, like Saudi Arabia, and just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the U.S. has said al-Qaida militants have been increasing their activity.

Yemen was also the scene of one of al-Qaida's most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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