At least fourteen people have been killed when suspected al-Qaeda fighters opened fire at a military checkpoint in Yemen's southern Shabwa province, the interior ministry has said, hours after a drone strike east of Sanaa.

The gunmen attacked the army checkpoint in the city of Bayhan with machine guns at dawn on Thursday while most of the soldiers were sleeping and fled the scene after setting fire to two army vehicles, a local official told the Reuters news agency.

The official had earlier placed the death toll at 12 soldiers, but a text message sent by the interior ministry's website raised it to 14, citing eight soldiers and six government-allied tribesmen. 

The assault came hours after a drone strike killed three al-Qaeda suspects late on Wednesday as they were travelling in a vehicle in the Wadi Abida area, east of the capital, tribal sources said.

The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen, but US officials rarely acknowledge the covert operations.

Al-Qaeda presence

Yemen is the main stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group's most active wings. 

The army said on Thursday that 500 fighters had been killed since the military launched an offensive against the group in April in Shabwa and neighbouring Abyan province, the Reuters news agency reported.

A total of 40 soldiers were also killed as a result of the military campaign against the group, Colonel Saeed al-Faquih, spokesman for the Yemeni army, told a news conference.

AQAP took advantage of the collapse of central authority during a 2011 uprising that forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power to seize large swathes of the south and east.

Source: Agencies