By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Masked gunmen attacked buildings near the southern Yemeni city of al-Hota on Thursday, residents said, amid a wave of militant attacks in the region.
The group, which Yemen's military described as al Qaeda militants, temporarily took over a security forces administrative building and council offices in Masameer district, residents told Reuters by telephone.
"There was a long battle with the security forces," one resident said, adding that the gunmen retreated after using up their ammunition.
Three guards were shot dead on Wednesday when gunmen stormed three other state buildings in neighboring al-Hota. Southern separatists and al Qaeda militants are both active in the region.
Pro-democracy protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule have nearly paralyzed the country and sparked deadly clashes between government forces and armed tribesmen, killing dozens.
The political opposition dismissed an offer from Gulf Arab states on Wednesday to mediate the country's political crisis, which has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Gulf states have offered several deals to ease Saleh, 69, out of office. Three times, he has backed out of their transition plans at the last moment.
WHO ARE THE MILITANTS?
Yemeni forces said they caught 10 suspected al Qaeda operatives trying to sneak into the southern port city of Aden late on Wednesday. Aden sits by strategic shipping lanes along which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
At the same time, thousands of refugees have been fleeing to Aden since militants took over the capital of the flashpoint southern province of Abyan.
Opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia after he was hurt in an attack on the presidential palace earlier this month, say he has let his forces hand over power to Islamist militants to frighten foreign donors.
Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University said both the government and the opposition had tried to use al Qaeda's presence in Yemen to their advantage in the media.
"We're not sure what's going on in Ayan or in Lahej (in the south) or even in Aden," he said, expressing skepticism toward government reports of the capture or killing of al Qaeda militants.
"On the ground of course, al Qaeda exists ... but not all militants in Yemen are al Qaeda," Johnsen said.
The Yemeni scholar Ali Seif Hassan said the rise in violence suggested militant groups that had previously cooperated with Saleh were no longer doing so as his power waned.
"When the new regime comes, they will negotiate with them. They are not al Qaeda, to some extent they are like al Qaeda."
(Additional reporting by Nour Merza in Dubai; writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Andrew Roche)