Fahd al-Quso was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 over his role in the bombing, but escaped from prison a year later

An al-Qaida terrorist on the run over the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole warship has been killed by an American drone in Yemen.

US officials have confirmed earlier reports by local officials and the terror network, saying the CIA carried out the mission after a surveillance operation by the agency and US military, with authorisation by the Yemeni government.

Fahd al-Quso was one of two al-Qaida operatives died after an aircraft fired a missile into the Wadi Rafad valley in the country's southern Shabwa province, Yemeni military officials said.

A statement from al-Qaida read: "Al-Qaida affirms the martyrdom of the Fahd al-Quso in an American attack this afternoon in Rafad."

It is believed that the second alleged terrorist killed in the incident was Fahed Salem al-Akdam.

Al-Quso, 37, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 over his role in the bombing of USS Cole, an attack that took the lives of 17 American soldiers, but he escaped from a Yemeni prison the following year. He was on the FBI's most wanted list, with a $5m reward for information leading to his capture.

It is believed that he and al-Akdam were killed as they were travelling through the Wadi Rafad valley.

In 2009, Yemeni government officials reported that al-Quso was killed in an airstrike in Rafd, but he resurfaced. Al-Quso, who was known for his ability to move in disguise, studied ultraconservative Salafi Islam as a teenager in northern Yemen, then returned home to learn welding.

A Yemeni sovernment website said a third al-Qaida operative had been arrested in Aden along with another man.

Yemen's branch of al-Qaida, which has plotted abortive overseas attacks from the country, has been a major worry for the US.

Washington has engaged in an assassination campaign against alleged members of the group using drone and missile strikes.

The White House has additionally called on Yemen's new president – who took office after a year of mass protests against his predecessor – to unify the armed forces and use them to fight the militant Islamist group.

During the uprising, a group linked to al-Qaida seized chunks of territory in south Yemen, killing about 100 Yemeni troops in a single attack in March last year.

The use of drones by the US has been controversial in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Washington is also fighting al-Qaida-linked groups.

Figures from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that CIA drones stuck Pakistan 75 times in 2011, causing up to 655 fatalities.

The majority of those killed were alleged militants, but as many as 126 civilians may also have lost their lives, the bureau's figures suggest.

Despite the heightened risk to civilian residents, the US looks set to increase its reliance on un-manned drones as part of new defence strategy based on a slimmed down military.

Earlier on Sunday, a Yemeni official said two Belgian nationals of Arab descent could be deported after being detained last month on suspicion of involvement in militant activities.

Ebrahim Bali and Ezzeddine Tuhairi were detained on 13 April at Sanaa's airport as they tried to enter the country.

"They were arrested on suspicion of planned terrorist activities in Yemen. We are in a process of negotiation with the Belgian government. We expect them to be deported … within days," the official said.

A Belgian foreign ministry spokesman confirmed the two men were being held over suspected involvement in "terrorist" activity, and said Brussels was seeking consular access to them.

© Guardian News and Media 2012