A new wave of fighting erupted in Yemen in a southern provincial capital that has been overrun by extremist militants, killing at least 17 al-Qaida-linked fighters and three soldiers, a military official said Sunday.
The official said the clashes took place in and around Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province. The city, along with several southern towns, has been overrun by al-Qaida-linked militants in the last two months of ongoing political turmoil in Yemen.
The United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia are particularly concerned about al-Qaida in Yemen, which is the terror group's most active branch.
Al-Qaida-linked militants quickly overtook towns in Abyan and its capital Zinjibar shortly after the June departure of longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia. Saleh left for medical treatment after an attack on his palace.
Government forces have been trying to dislodge the Islamic militants from areas in the south, but they have only made modest headway after weeks of fighting and airstrikes.
The military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 14 militants were killed in gunbattles with security after an ambush on two military outposts in the area of Dufas close to Zinjibar. Three soldiers were killed in those clashes, the official said.
Three more militants were killed in a military airstrike in the same area, the official said.
Yemen has been rocked by political upheaval since massive demonstrations began in February demanding Saleh step down after 33 years in power. The Yemeni president has clung to power even after several of his closest aides and top military commanders abandoned him to side with protesters.
In separate fighting, troops from the elite Republican Guards clashed with a defecting army unit north of Sanaa, a military official from the defecting unit said. Two defecting soldiers were killed in the first clashes of their kind since Saleh left to Saudi Arabia.
The defecting unit, led by one of Saleh's former aides, has been in control of the northern part of the capital. The clashes apparently erupted when the Republican Guards attempted to gain new ground, the official said. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Fighting also erupted over the weekend in areas northeast of the capital Sanaa after al-Qaida militants launched a series of attacks on army positions, according to the government.
However, tribal leaders in the Arhab and Naham mountains said that the army was moving Saturday in to attack areas controlled by anti-government tribesmen. Tribesmen said they stopped the elite Republican Guards' attempt to advance in clashes that killed an unspecified number of soldiers and destroyed two armored vehicles.
Government shelling in the area killed eight civilians, including two women, according to Sheik Hameed Assem. Other tribal leaders also reported airstrikes over the weekend targeting villages in the area.