By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemeni security sources said their forces had killed two al Qaeda leaders in the south during a bloody offensive in the flashpoint Abyan province as it seeks to regain areas seized by Islamist militants.
But opposition groups and security analysts are skeptical about the government's claims and say it wants to show it has the upper hand in the conflict in Abyan, where militants have challenged army control in recent months by seizing several areas, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
The Defense Ministry website, 26 September.net, said its forces killed Ayedh al-Shabwani and Awad Mohammed al-Shabwani in fierce fighting on Wednesday.
Yemen previously reported the killing of Ayedh al-Shabwani in an air raid in January 2010, and in 2009 said it killed someone named Awad al-Shabwani.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based regional franchise of the al Qaeda network, denied the deaths of both men at that time.
A government official, who declined to be named, acknowledged critics had reason for skepticism: "They have a right to some doubts because there has been a lack of precision in some past information given, but our media announces the news as we receive it from the area."
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by AQAP, are wary of growing turmoil in Yemen as mass protests seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh drag into their sixth month. He is currently convalescing in Riyadh from a bomb blast on his palace.
Ali Dahmas, an opposition figure from Abyan who had fled the area in recent weeks, said he thought the government was hiding how strong the militants were.
"These (announcements) are just painkillers, they are just an attempt to please the United States. But then the battle will just move to another city," he said.
In recent weeks, security sources in Abyan have reported dozens of militants killed by the army, including at least two other AQAP leaders.
AQAP has yet to confirm the death of any of its leaders, but often takes several weeks to make announcements online.
HARD TO CORROBORATE
Yemeni al Qaeda analyst Said Obeid said his tally of AQAP militants allegedly killed since the beginning of the year was around 300 -- the same number of AQAP members the government has said are operating in Yemen.
"What I find suspicious is the Shabwani killings were said to be in an air strike and the announcement came immediately after the raid. The government is looking for victories right now even if they are lies," he said.
Saleh's opponents accuse him of letting his forces ease their grip around areas suspected of hosting militants, in order to convince the international community that only he stands in the way of a militant takeover.
Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group, said there was some truth to the opposition's argument, but believed the government's plan may have backfired.
The army has battled militants in Abyan for weeks but has not yet been able to retake major cities, he said.
"It's very clear the government let security slide in order to come to the rescue later. But now, that doesn't seem to be working out so well," he said.
Some analysts argue while the government may well have killed many militants in its recent offensive, it is unlikely all of those were al Qaeda operatives. They may instead have been members of other militant groups or perhaps even tribal groups that have become part of the fray.
"Quite often the roles attributed to these people by the Yemeni authorities can't really be corroborated," said Jeremy Binnie, a senior security analyst from IHS Jane's.
"I think there's a tendency from quite a few of the security forces to give the impression the people they're taking out are quite important, and they may over exaggerate their importance."
Abyan has seen daily bloodshed since militants seized the city of Jaar in March and provincial capital Zinjibar in May.
Local officials and medics in Abyan have declined to release estimates on the number of soldiers killed or wounded in the clashes.
Some 54,000 people have fled to the nearby strategic port city of Aden, which forces have surrounded with a security cordon to prevent more militants slipping in.
Aden lies east of a major sea lane where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
"I think at a macro level, they (the army) are killing people every day," said Karasik, of INEGMA. "Are they actually killing the people they say they are? It's very hard to tell."
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sophie Hares)