Yemeni troops backed by armed tribesmen routed al-Qaida on Tuesday from two southern strongholds the terror network had held for more than a year, the most significant victory so far in a monthlong offensive against a local franchise that has tried time and again to bomb U.S.-bound planes.
The military campaign, orchestrated by U.S. military advisers and bankrolled by neighboring Saudi Arabia, has left al-Qaida's dangerous Yemen branch on the run. The group remained in control of only a handful of towns, with hundreds of its members scattered in the mountains, valleys and vast desert of the Arab world's most impoverished country.
In one of the liberated strongholds, Jaar, residents flocked to the town center, firing guns in the air in celebration after the army's dawn attack. Others looted warehouses filled with humanitarian supplies delivered by relief groups, Waleed Mohammed, a resident, said in a telephone interview.
"We thought it would take a year for the army to get rid of al-Qaida, but we were surprised when they swept into the town in no time," said Jaar resident Khaled Mohsen. "I had been hearing a constant exchange of gunfire all night, then suddenly everything was quiet. I looked from the windows, and I saw soldiers in uniform in the center of the town."
The breakthrough follows other key victories against the Pakistan-based terror network since the death last year of Osama bin Laden. Most notably, CIA drone strikes killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's No. 2, on June 4 in Pakistan; and Anwar al-Awlaki, an enormously influential American-Yemeni cleric, on Sept. 30 in Yemen.
With the capture of Jaar and the city of Zinjibar, Yemen's new U.S.-backed leadership now has to deal with another fight in its war against al-Qaida: sleeper cells, which are hard to chase.
"This is the end of al-Qaida's aspirations to establish an Islamic rule in the south. There is no comeback to this," said Brig.-Gen. Mohammed al-Sawmali.
"However, this is not the end of al-Qaida in the country. We expect the group to carry out selective operations targeting key political and military figures," al-Sawmali said, speaking to The Associated Press from the governor's office in Zinjibar, which al-Qaida had turned into a command center.
The militant group said it retreated to "spare bloodshed," threatening to retaliate by attacking Yemen's capital, Sanaa. In an emailed statement, the group addressed the Yemeni leadership as "crusaders and American agents" and warned "we will chase you in your cities and palaces."
Some 500 al-Qaida militants, including foreigners, fled Jaar after spray-painting walls and store shutters with slogans in red saying, "Al-Qaida has withdrawn. Al-Qaida was not defeated," according to witnesses and officials
The U.S. considers al-Qaida's Yemen branch to be the terror network's most dangerous offshoot.
The group took advantage of a security vacuum last year amid a popular uprising against Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize major population centers in Abyan province. That raised fears it could use the area as a foothold to launch more attacks on U.S. targets.
Already, the franchise has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on U.S. soil from its hideouts. It also emerged last month that the CIA had thwarted a plot to down a U.S.-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber's underwear. The planned bomber was actually a double agent who turned the device over to the U.S. government.
The militants pose a threat to Yemen's government as well and have looted army barracks, seized tanks and heavy weaponry. Military officials have described the al-Qaida franchise as a "real army."
Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing last month by a soldier who blew himself up among troops rehearsing for a military parade in the capital, Sanaa, killing nearly 100 of them.
Tuesday's success capped weeks of fighting as Yemen's new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has pledged to uproot al-Qaida from the south with help from the United States as part of a new cooperation following Saleh's ouster.
The U.S. is helping the Yemenis from a command center manned by dozens of U.S. troops in the al-Annad air base in the southern desert, about 45 miles (65 kilometers) from the main battle zones. The Americans are coordinating assaults and airstrikes, and providing information to Yemeni forces.
While the United States has sent advisers and provided intelligence and logistical support, Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Gulf country, has come forth with cash _ especially to armed civilians who back up the Yemeni army in its battles against al-Qaida, according to a top military official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Yemen's military has long been largely ineffectual in uprooting the militants. The force is ill-equipped, poorly trained with weak intelligence capabilities and is riven with conflicted loyalties, since some commanders remain close to Saleh.
Hadi was sworn in Feb. 25 to replace Saleh following an uncontested election as part of a power-transfer deal brokered by neighboring Gulf countries and backed by the United States. His first orders were to shake up the military by purging it of Saleh's loyalists, demoting his family members from their positions as commanders of army units and appointing new ones.
Throwing its weight behind Hadi on Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution threatening non-military sanctions against those trying to undermine the country's national unity government, an indirect reference to Saleh and his loyalists.
The resolution demands "the cessation of all actions aimed at undermining the government of national unity and the political transition."
In Tuesday's battle for Jaar, 160 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Yemeni troops and allied tribesmen swooped into the town at dawn after hours of heavy shelling by artillery and rockets from hilltop positions, according to military officials. Pro-government fighters rode trucks into town from three different fronts, while dozens of tanks were used to block the town's entry and exit points, they said.
Troops also liberated a vital highway that links Jaar with the port city of Aden, through which Yemen exports more than 60 percent of its oil and controls the southern tip of the Red Sea, according to the Yemen's defense ministry.
The Yemeni state-news agency SABA said most of the militants fled to the nearby coastal town of Shaqra, the last remaining major al-Qaida stronghold in Abyan province.
Military commander Gen. Salem al-Quton told SABA that 20 militants and four troops were killed in the fighting.
The fighting was lighter in Zinjibar, a coastal city 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of the capital. Many al-Qaida militants had left to help their comrades in Jaar, official said.
Six soldiers were killed when land minds exploded in fields in northern Zinjibar, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Al-Qaida still controls the desert city of Jawf, 110 miles (175 kilometers) northeast of the capital along the border with Saudi Arabia, and some small towns in the provinces of Shabwa and Marib.