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Three military pilots killed in Yemen ambush: officials

ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda militants shot dead three Yemeni airforce pilots on Wednesday as they traveled to a southern airbase jointly used with U.S. forces to launch attacks on the group.

The pilots were heading to the Al Anad air base in Lahj province when one of two militants riding a motor-bike opened fire on them with a machine gun, a security official said.

"Three pilots were in one car and when they slowed down for a road bump, the militants ambushed them," he told Reuters.

A local government official said he believed the militants were linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group which Washington considers al Qaeda's most dangerous arm.

Stability in Yemen is seen as important beyond its own borders because of its location next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and international shipping routes.

Militants attempted last October to blow up an explosives-laden car at the entrance to the base - used by U.S.-controlled drones to strike al Qaeda targets - but Yemeni security forces foiled the attempt.

About 60 military and security officials have been shot dead in southern and eastern Yemen in the past two years after an Islamist insurgency sprang up.

Militants allied to al Qaeda took advantage of political chaos and splits in the military during Arab Spring protests to seize control of some southern cities.

The protests unseated President Ali Abdullah Saleh and installed an interim government which, with the help of tribal militias, pushed the militants from cities they had captured.

However, fighting between militants and pro-government forces continues throughout rural areas of southern Yemen.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Yara Bayoumy)

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