By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Islamist gunmen killed at least 32 government soldiers on Monday when they stormed a military position in southern Yemen where militants control broad swathes of territory, a military official said.
Yemen has a seen a surge in violence in the south since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office in February, prompting the government to respond with air strikes and the United States with drones that target militants.
Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) said the latest raid was a response to recent statements by Hadi that he would defeat the militants, who have been emboldened by more than a year of political upheaval.
Monday's attack came hours after a suspected U.S. drone strike killed two men in a neighboring province, including one the government described as a senior member of al Qaeda.
The military official told Reuters gunmen attacked Yemeni troops outside the city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, killing at least 32 servicemen. They had captured a number of soldiers and made off with weapons and ammunition, he added.
At least 40 soldiers were wounded in the attack, the official and medical sources said. A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group that seized Zinjibar last year, said his side had captured 28 soldiers and a tank in the raid.
A different military source was cited by the defense ministry website as saying 22 soldiers had been killed.
"At five o'clock this morning, terrorist elements from the al Qaeda network carried out a treacherous and cowardly act of terrorism," said the source.
SUSPECTED DRONE STRIKE
In a similar attack in March, militants killed about 100 troops in Zinjibar after Hadi took office.
Separately, but also in Abyan province, a militant was killed when a bomb he was carrying went off accidentally, a local official said. The bomber had aimed to attack tribesmen who have joined forces with the army against Islamist fighters.
Yemen's government and Ansar al-Sharia both said that a missile strike hours earlier in neighboring Shabwa province had killed Fahd al-Qasaa, who was convicted of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen's southern port of Aden.
Residents of Shabwa and Ansar al-Sharia said the missile was fired from a U.S. drone. A drone strike last year killed a U.S. citizen whom U.S. officials subsequently claimed had helped plan a failed attack on a U.S. airliner.
The use of drones has angered the public in Yemen as it has in other countries such as Pakistan, where Washington also uses unmanned aircraft to kill militants.
Washington has backed a power transfer that saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced by his deputy in February, after a year of mass protests against Saleh. The United States now wants Hadi to unify the fragmented army and turn it against militants.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Joseph Logan and Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Osborn)