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Two drone strikes kill five in Yemen - officials

SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - At least five people were killed in two drone strikes in south Yemen on Monday in what security and local officials said were attacks on suspected al Qaeda-linked insurgents.

Improving stability and security in Yemen is a priority for the United States and its Gulf Arab allies because of its strategic position next to the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and shipping lanes, and because it is home to one of the most active wings of al Qaeda.

Monday's strikes were the first in almost two months by pilotless aircraft against suspected al Qaeda men in Yemen, an impoverished country of mountains and desert on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

The United States has escalated its use of drones against al Qaeda in Yemen, where the group exploited mass anti-government unrest last year to seize swathes of territory in the south before being driven out by a military offensive in June.

The officials said the first drone strike hit a vehicle in a town in al-Bayda province, killing at least two suspected al Qaeda militants. One of those killed in the attack was a Jordanian citizen, a local official and a resident said.

Family members of the other man, a Yemeni called Abdul Raouf Naseeb, confirmed he was one of those killed.

A Yemeni al Qaeda militant of that name narrowly escaped a U.S. drone strike in November 2002 that killed several al Qaeda operatives including Qaed Salim Sinan al Harithi, an alleged plotter behind the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen in October 2000 in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed.

In the second drone strike on Monday, at least three people riding two motorcycles and carrying pistols were killed by a missile in Hadramout province, a security official said, adding that they were suspected members of al Qaeda.

Residents said the Hadramout attack happened on the outskirts of the coastal town of al-Sheher. The residents said a fourth person was wounded in the strike.

The U.S.-backed military offensive drove the militants out of areas they seized in the south but has not prevented them from launching attacks that have dealt damaging blows to the army and security apparatus.

Naseeb had fled to al-Bayda from Lawdar province during a U.S.-backed military offensive in Lawdar earlier in 2012.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Rania El Gamal and Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)