ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni troops killed four Islamist fighters in a southern town they seized from government control, a local official said Saturday, but a spokesman for the Islamists denied his side had suffered any casualties.
The fighting in Zinjibar, capital of the southern Abyan province where Islamist bands have taken control of swathes of territory in the last seven months, underlines erosion of central authority which fans U.S. and Saudi fears the state may collapse and give al Qaeda a foothold near oil shipping routes.
Those fears are behind their support for a plan to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office after a year of protests demanding he go which has been punctuated with open war between his forces and those of a rebel general and tribal magnates.
Saleh, who left Yemen this week, has transferred some powers to his deputy and enjoys immunity from prosecution under the deal. It established a transitional government including opposition blocs and envisions restructuring Yemen's armed forces, key units of which are led by Saleh's relatives.
A local official said Yemeni troops killed four fighters from Ansar al-Shariah in a skirmish on the eastern edge of Zinjibar, which Islamists fighters overran last May. One soldier was killed in the fighting late Friday, he said.
A spokesman for the group said his side had suffered no casualties, but confirmed the account of a soldier's death.
Separately, a police colonel in Hadrawamout province was gravely wounded when unidentified assailants shot him with automatic weapons before fleeing on motorcycles late Friday, a local official said. He blamed the attack on al Qaeda.
Islamist fighters - including a relative of a U.S. citizen whom Washington accused of a leadership role in al Qaeda and assassinated last year - earlier this month briefly took control of a town about 170 km (105 miles) south of the capital.
That advance came as Saleh, long a central player in a U.S. "counter-terrorism" strategy featuring the use of drones to assassinate alleged al Qaeda members, prepared to leave the country for medical treatment in the United States via Oman ahead of an election to pick his successor.
His foes accuse him of deliberately ceding territory to Islamists to make himself indispensable to his former U.S. patrons, and of ultimately aiming to sabotage the political transition and retain power for his inner circle.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhshaf; Writing by Joseph Logan)