New Zealander, Australian killed in Yemen drone strike

WELLINGTON (AFP) - A New Zealander with terrorism links was killed in a United States drone strike in Yemen last year, Prime Minister John Key said Wednesday, with Canberra confirming that an Australian was also killed in the attack.

The man who called himself "Muslim bin John" was born in New Zealand and had been attending "some sort of terrorist training camp" in Yemen, Mr Key said.

"I was advised it was highly likely he was killed in the latter part of 2013 but it took some time to confirm that through DNA," he told reporters.

The Australian newspaper said that the man died in a US Predator drone strike on five Al-Qaeda militants travelling in a convoy of cars in Yemen in November.

It said he was a dual New Zealand-Australian citizen and another man, from the eastern Australian state of Queensland, was also killed. Both men were believed to be in their 20s.

Key confirmed the deaths were the result of a drone strike and said New Zealand had no prior knowledge of the operation.

He defended the use of drones, saying: "They are legitimate at certain times, where countries are trying to contend with dangerous situations and they're trying to deal with terrorists without putting their own people in harm's way."

Asked if this specific drone strike was legitimate, he replied: "I suspect so yes, given that three of the people killed were well-known Al-Qaeda operatives."

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed the deaths, stressing that it had no prior knowledge of the operation in which they died.

"We understand the men were killed during a counter-terrorism operation and do not intend to discuss its details," a spokesman said.

The police and consular officials in Australia and New Zealand were in contact with the next of kin when the deaths were confirmed and the Australian Federal Police helped in identifying the remains, she said.

The Australian newspaper said US officials notified their Australian counterparts about the possibility its citizens had been "collateral damage" in the strike on Nov 19.

The pair were not the intended targets of the strike which also killed three others, including Abu Habib al-Yemeni, who was reportedly a companion of Osama bin Laden, it said.

However, they were "foot soldiers" for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who may have been involved in kidnapping westerners for ransom, the report said, quoting an unnamed source.

At the time, Yemeni authorities said that a drone strike in Hadramawt province killed three Al-Qaeda suspects when a missile hit their vehicle.

The United States is the only country that operates drones in the region where security is highly volatile, with the Australian government warning citizens against all travel there since 2010.

AQAP is viewed by the United States as the deadliest franchise of the Islamic extremist network, and the Yemen-based offshoot is frequently targeted in US drone attacks.