Yemeni government troops seized control Friday of part of an al-Qaida stronghold in the country's lawless south after fierce fighting that has left at least 25 militants dead, a military official said.
After launching an attack overnight, the army pushed into the outskirts of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, while the rest of the city remained in the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Militants have taken advantage of more than a year of political turmoil in Yemen to seize control of large swaths of territory in the country's south. The U.S. believes al-Qaida's Yemeni branch is the most dangerous arm of the terror group because of its repeated attempts to carry out attacks in the United States.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that government troops had made "a great advance toward Zinjibar."
Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaida-linked group, confirmed in a statement Friday that its fighters had "encountered a massive offensive by Sanaa regime forces," but said the army had not retaken Zinjibar, where thousands of people have had to flee their home over the past year due to the fighting.
The army's push on the city is part of a broader offensive that kicked off two weeks ago around Lawder, another town in Abyan. At least 250 al-Qaida militants and 37 government soldiers have been killed in the fighting so far, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday.
The conflict with al-Qaida in the south is being watched as a test of the ability of Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to combat the militants.
Hadi took over from ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in February as part of a power transfer deal brokered by Arab Gulf countries and backed by the United States. The agreement gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down.
Hadi has pledged to purge Saleh's loyalists and family members from top security and military posts as part of restructuring the army to enable it to effectively combat al-Qaida militants in the south. Saleh's allies have resisted Hadi's efforts.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, meanwhile, rallied in the capital, Sanaa, and several other cities demanding trial of Saleh and his family for killing protesters during the past year's uprising. "The people want to prosecute the murderer," the protesters chanted, holding up composite pictures showing Saleh behind bars.
Saleh stepped down in February but remains in Yemen, and the opposition accuses him of meddling in state affairs and trying to undermine Hadi.
The sustained political instability and fighting in Yemen has taken a toll on the country.
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, said that the conflict has forced the breakdown of health services, which has led to a measles outbreak in Yemen, with some 180 deaths and more than 4,000 cases reported by the end of March. Malnutrition due to the fighting has aggravated the problem.
Associated Press writer Peter James Spielmann contributed to this story from the United Nations.