Botched air strike kills 5 Yemeni civilians in south

ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni warplanes mistakenly killed five civilians in raids on suspected militant strongholds in the country's volatile south, a military official said, in a series of strikes on Monday targeting elements thought to belong al Qaeda.

At least 24 people -- civilians and militants -- were killed in the raids on various sites in the province of Abyan, where the army is waging an offensive against militants emboldened by months of upheaval in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear the turmoil will give al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch more room to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

The botched air strike on the city of Jaar in Abyan targeted a building thought to be hiding militants, but killed five civilians and injured three instead, the official said.

Warplanes also bombed Jaar hospital which militants had occupied to treat their wounded comrades, a local official said. A witness said he saw the bodies of seven militants being carried out of the building for burial.

Militants have seized several towns in Abyan, situated just east of a strategic shipping strait where some 3 million barrels of oil pass through daily.

A security official said at least 10 people believed to belong to al Qaeda were killed in an overnight air raid on a suburb of Abyan's capital Zinjibar, which was seized by militants in May.

Further south, two more militants were killed in air strikes on the coastal town of Shaqra, which was taken over in recent weeks despite reports from the army that it was making gains against the militants.

Yemen is mired in armed violence as a political standoff between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and opponents to his 33-year rule drags into its seventh month. Saleh is now in Saudi Arabia, where he sought medical treatment after being injured in a June assassination attempt on him.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis have fled violence in Abyan, where clashes between militants and the army erupt almost daily.

In Lawdar, another city in Abyan, tribesmen detained a suicide bomber who they said was wandering around a market apparently looking for a target.

A local official said a stall owner at the market grew suspicious of the man and alerted armed tribesmen guarding the area. The men found an explosives belt strapped around the suspect's waist when they captured and searched him.

The defense ministry confirmed a 19-year-old aspiring suicide bomber had been caught. It said he planned to attack the army.

Some tribes have joined forces with the military to try to flush militants out of Abyan to help defeat militants in a country where tribal allegiances are key. Al Qaeda's Yemen branch has also sought to cement ties with local tribes.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich)