Boys gather near the wreckage of a car destroyed by a US drone targeting suspected al-Qaeda militants in Azan, in the south-eastern Yemeni province of Shabwa, in February 2013. File picture: Khaled Abdullah

Sana’a - Yemen's president, in an interview published on Monday, defended America’s use of drones against al-Qaeda in his country, despite criticism from rights groups and a parliamentary vote to ban them.

President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi also again accused Iran of supporting southern secessionists and northern rebels as Yemen undergoes a difficult political transition.

Drone strikes “have greatly helped in limiting al-Qaeda activities, despite some mistakes which we are sorry about”, Hadi told the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily.

The United States has launched repeated drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets in Yemen as part of its “war on terror” and in support of the army's campaign against the jihadists.

The drone war, which has killed dozens of militants over the past year, has triggered criticism from human rights activists, who say many innocent civilians have also died.

The United Nations said 16 civilians were killed and at least 10 wounded when two separate wedding processions were hit in December.

The victims had been mistakenly identified as members of al-Qaeda, the UN quoted local security officials as saying at the time.

Following the deaths, Yemen's parliament, which has limited powers when it comes to security policy, voted to ban drone strikes.

But Hadi insisted that using traditional warplanes against the extremist network could cause “much bigger losses”.

In the same interview, he told Shi’a-dominated Iran to “keep its hands off Yemen” and to stop backing “armed groups” in the country.

“Unfortunately, Iran still meddles in Yemen whether by supporting the separatist (Southern) Movement or some religious groups in the north,” he said, referring to the northern Huthi Shi’a rebels who fought six wars with central government forces since 2004 before signing a truce in February 2010.

In recent months, the rebels have clashed sporadically with tribesmen and troops in an attempt to spread their control further towards the capital.

“We had asked our Iranian brothers to review their wrong policy towards Yemen, but our demands have so far been fruitless,” said Hadi, adding that Sana’a is not seeking “escalation” with the Islamic republic.

Hadi has repeatedly accused Tehran of “trying to derail the political” process in Sunni-majority Yemen, where a year-long popular uprising led to the 2012 ousting of former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh after a Saudi-sponsored deal was sealed the previous November.

Both Shi’a rebels and southern independence activists, demanding a return to the independence they enjoyed before union with the north in 1990, have rejected plans for a six-region federation decided by a presidential committee in February. - AFP