ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces have killed six Islamist militant fighters in two towns, a local official said Thursday, part of efforts to drive the fighters out of three cities in the south of the country.
An air strike killed three militants and wounded six late on Wednesday in the coastal town of Shaqra, seized by Islamists in August, the official said.
Three were killed and dozens wounded in Zinjibar, taken by militants in May, when Yemeni forces shelled one of their bases in the north of the city, he said. Two soldiers were wounded during clashes with the militants, the official said.
Islamist militants have also controlled Jaar since March, apparently exploiting a security vacuum while President Ali Abdullah Saleh fights to keep his grip on power after nine months of protests against his 33-year rule.
Saleh has refused three times to implement a Gulf-brokered power transfer plan, aggravating protests and bringing the impoverished country to the brink of civil war.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday that civilians were paying the price of the mounting violence in Yemen.
The independent humanitarian agency voiced concern that first-aid workers had been prevented from approaching and evacuating some casualties because of "roadblocks, closed streets and other obstacles."
"Some first-aid and medical personnel have even been threatened or attacked," Eric Marclay, head of the ICRC's delegation in Yemen, said in a statement.
"We are concerned that the violence in Sanaa and in other parts of the country has increased significantly," he added.
The casualty toll in the capital had risen quickly in recent weeks, he said, without giving a figure. In other major cities such as Taiz, the unrest was either "just as bad or even more worrying," the ICRC said.
The ICRC, working hand-in-hand with the Yemen Red Crescent, had helped administer first aid to more than 1,600 injured people in violence-stricken areas of Yemen, it said.
Power cuts which can last for most of the day and severe water shortages have added to civilians' hardships, it said.
A tribal leader said Thursday that air force and artillery attacks were being stepped up on the flashpoint town of Arhab, just 40 km (25 miles) north of Sanaa, where tribesmen have thrown their weight behind anti-Saleh protesters.
"There is continuous shelling and bombardment with Katuyshas and by the air force over the past four or five months. It is something that the tribe has become used to. The shelling has touched water wells, farms, children and women. But today it was astonishing," Sheikh Mansour Ali al-Hanaq told Al Jazeera TV.
"We will respond with the means that we have. We will not be silent from now on. This regime will not depart except by force and won't leave in peace. We will respond with the weapons we have to defend ourselves," Hanaq said.
Weapons are readily available in Yemen, where tribal allegiances are still strong among wide sections of the population of about 24 million people.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush and Sami Aboudi; editing by Tim Pearce)