SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - The Yemeni airforce mistakenly struck a military site in south Yemen on Sunday, killing more than a dozen soldiers, a local security official said, but the government denied the report.
"We are not sure of the number yet but some 18 or 20 soldiers were killed, the plane hit a small military site in Abyan. They meant to target an al Qaeda hideout," a security official told Reuters by telephone from the flashpoint Abyan province.
A defense ministry source, however, denied "the false news that Yemeni soldiers were killed in an accidental Yemeni plane strike."
Yemen's army is fighting to regain territory lost to suspected al Qaeda operatives during months of political upheaval that have weakened central government control over parts of the country, notably Abyan.
Abyan's capital Zinjibar was "liberated" from Islamist fighters by government troops last month, but clashes continue to flare there. Local officials said nine soldiers were killed when militants ambushed government forces in the east of the city on Sunday. Another 23 were injured.
Separately, but also in Zinjibar, four more soldiers died in combat with gunmen and 15 militants were killed in air strikes on Sunday, local officials and residents said.
Since popular protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh paralyzed impoverished Yemen earlier this year, international powers have feared growing lawlessness might embolden al Qaeda's local wing and imperil shipping routes via the Red Sea.
Saleh's opponents accuse him of exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda and even encouraging militancy to scare Saudi Arabia and the United States into backing him.
Saleh had been in Saudi Arabia since June recovering from an attempt on his life. His surprise comeback coincided with a burst of bloodshed in the capital Sanaa when a months-old uneasy stalemate gave way to a military showdown between pro- and anti-Saleh forces.
Violence has been sporadic since Saleh's return, but many Yemenis and analysts fear the country may eventually slide into an even deadlier confrontation, if not civil war.
There were clashes again in Sanaa on Sunday, with residents reporting gunfire near the base of top general Ali Mohsen, who defected from Saleh in March and threw his weight behind protesters calling for an end to his 33-year rule.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari, Erika Solomon and Dhuyazen Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)