'Many more killed'

Those killed and arrested in Arhab "planned to strike at schools as well as interests at home and abroad," Yemen's interior ministry said on Thursday, without elaborating.

However, residents of Abyan said that there was no al-Qaeda training camp in the area and that the raids had destroyed several homes.

Ali Mohammed Mansour, who said he helped bury the dead in a mass grave, said that the community was only 100 metres away from a main road and 2km from an army base.

Abbas al-Assal, a local human rights activist who was at the scene, said 64 people were killed, including 23 children and 17 women.

"The government wants to show the world that it is serious in pursuing al-Qaeda elements and that the south of Yemen is a refuge for al-Qaeda. That is not true at all," al-Assal told the Associated Press by telephone.

Mohammed Hazran, Abyan's deputy governor, said that 10 al-Qaeda suspects were killed in the attack, including Mohammed Saleh al-Kazemi, a Saudi who had resided in the country since fighting in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned in Yemen for two years before being released in 2005.

'Grave mistakes'

A provincial security official said that "grave mistakes occurred in the operation due to failures of information, which led to a large number of civilian deaths".

"If [al-Kazemi] was wanted, why didn't the authorities come and arrest him all this time?" he said.

Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be living among tribes that have raised concerns with the central government, especially in the northeast of the country.

Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for Asharq Al-Wasat newspaper, told Al Jazeera that al-Qaeda fighters were working with members of the Houthi rebel group, which is fighting the government in the north of the country.

"Ideologically they are very different, however, in a very Machiavellian way they have decided that joining forces would definitely increase the effectiveness of the military campaign against the Yemeni govenment," he said from Beirut.

Yemen’s government has in recent months ordered a series of deadly raids against Houthi fighters in the north of the country, as well as a growing separatist campaign in the south of the country.