By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni troops have killed an Uzbek commander of al Qaeda and six other fighters in a fierce battle in south Yemen, officials said on Thursday, the third day of a large-scale military offensive aimed to stamp out the violent Islamist group.
A local military source said the Uzbek citizen, known as Abu Muslim al-Uzbeki, died during fighting in the province of Abyan. Two days ago, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said 70 percent of al Qaeda fighters in Yemen were foreigners.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its off-shoot called Ansar al-Sharia have hampered the U.S.-allied country's efforts to restore stability since a revolt in 2011 that forced a change in government.
Hundreds of people have died in bombings, suicide attacks and commando-style raids by the militant group against military and government facilities and foreign nationals.
Stability in Yemen, which shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, became of international concern in recent years after AQAP tried to carry out attacks abroad, including an attempt blow up a U.S.-bound plane.
Since 2012, AQAP's main base has been Abyan's mountainous al-Mahfad area, where militants fled after the army, with U.S. help, drove them from towns and areas they had seized during the chaotic uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemeni troops began their offensive on al-Mahfad, which spans 20,000 square kms (7,700 square miles), on Tuesday, backed by air force planes and hundreds of local militiamen.
Their operation came nearly two weeks after AQAP suffered a major blow when a series of air strikes on al-Mahfad killed 55 suspected militants in their hideouts.
State news agency Saba said on Thursday that the army had directed "painful blows" to militants in al-Mahfad. The battle was being overseen by the defense minister himself, it said.
According to Saba, the governor of the southern al-Bayda province and the head of the southern military command survived an ambush on Thursday, but three of his guards were killed.
So far around 12 al Qaeda fighters and five Yemeni soldiers have been killed, according to local officials and state media.
At least one militant was captured, the Ministry of Defence's official newspaper said.
However, independent media outlets from south Yemen suggest the army is encountering stiff resistance from militants and is suffering heavier losses than the government is ready to admit.
The Aden al-Ghad newspaper described the fighting near al-Mahfad as "vicious" and published what it said were exclusive photos of charred skeletons of armored vehicles.
(Additional reporting Mohamed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Reem Shamseddine; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Raissa Kasolowsky)