ADEN (Reuters) - The Yemeni air force killed nine suspected militants in two air raids in southern Yemen's restive Abyan province on Friday, a local official said, a day after the army said it killed 18 insurgents in a counter-offensive in the same area.
More than 200 people have been killed since government forces stepped up their attacks on al Qaeda-linked militants who assaulted a military camp near the town of Lawdar, in Abyan province, last week.
"Five armed elements were killed in one of the Yemeni air force attacks and four in another," the local official told Reuters. Both raids were on positions of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) near Lawdar, he said.
The Defense Ministry said earlier on its website that the army had killed 18 militants on Thursday while pushing back Ansar al-Sharia fighters from several positions near Zinjibar, their stronghold and the capital of Abyan province.
Yemen slipped into a state of chaos after the outbreak of protests more than a year ago that led to the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh under a deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf neighbors.
Islamist insurgents have exploited the weakened central government control by seizing a number of towns in the south, close to key shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
The ministry website said security forces had uncovered an al Qaeda plot to use six vehicles packed with explosives to launch suicide attacks on gas facilities in Belhaf in southern Shabwa province.
Yemen's oil and gas pipelines have been sabotaged repeatedly, disrupting exports by the small producer.
The government has regularly reported al Qaeda plots to launch further attacks, but it has not been possible to confirm them independently.
France's Total gas pipeline to Balhaf was last blown up in March, hours after a U.S. drone attack killed at least five militants.
The new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who took office vowing to fight al Qaeda, is also facing challenges from Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the north and secessionists in the south.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Tim Pearce)