ADEN (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked group in Yemen has threatened the lives of 73 government troops it says it has captured, demanding the authorities release its fellow Islamist fighters from jail in exchange for the soldiers' safety.
The threat from the Ansar al-Sharia group (Partisans of Islamic Law), whose precise ties to al Qaeda remain unclear, was delivered via a text message sent to Reuters on Wednesday, and followed a fierce fire fight in the south of the country on Sunday between government troops and militants that left at least 110 government troops dead.
"The mujahideen demand the release of their prisoners from the national and political security jails in exchange for saving the lives of 73 soldiers they hold captive in Abyan," the text message read.
"In the event of failure to comply with their (the militants') demands, the lives of the soldiers will be in danger," it added.
The militants also urged relatives of the captured soldiers to lobby the U.S. ambassador to Yemen and President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen's newly-elected leader, on the soldiers' behalf.
There was no way to verify whether the text message was really from the militants but they have often used this method to communicate with local media in the past.
The army said on Monday some of its soldiers had gone missing but did not say how many. Hadi, who was elected just last month, has said his forces will hunt the militants down.
The militants struck on Sunday, launching suicide attacks on two military posts outside the southern city of Zinjibar in the province of Abyan. Medics said at least 110 government soldiers died in the blasts and clashes that followed. The militants, who reportedly lost 20 of their own fighters in the violence, are pressing for government forces to abandon the city of Zinjibar to them. They said they had taken at least 70 government troops prisoner on Sunday.
In another text message on Wednesday, the militants also said they had allowed a Red Cross medical team into Jaar, a small town in the same province which they control, so that wounded government soldiers could receive treatment.
The head of the Yemeni delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed separately that a small team of surgeons and doctors had been granted access to Jaar, where they treated 12 soldiers in a makeshift hospital in a school.
"We managed yesterday mid-morning to obtain authorization by (the) armed group Ansar al-Sharia to come and do some medical work in Jaar in Abyan province," Eric Marclay told Reuters, adding that the 12 soldiers were now in a stable condition.
Ansar al-Sharia is inspired by al Qaeda but the precise extent of its ties to the global militant network are unclear, although the Yemeni government says they are one and the same. Some analysts say it may be local militant groups at work however.
A year of political upheaval has severely weakened central government control over swathes of Yemen in favor of Islamist militants, who have expanded their foothold in the south, near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Militants seized the town of Jaar - the second largest in Abyan - last March, while protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh paralyzed the country.
Wary of al Qaeda entrenchment in Yemen, the United States backed a Gulf-brokered deal under which Saleh handed power to Hadi, who is tasked with leading the impoverished nation for the next two years.
The bloody attack on Sunday underlined the scale of the challenge Hadi faces.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Osborn)