Yemeni troops killed 21 al-Qaida fighters as the army pushed on with an offensive in two southern provinces, military officials said Saturday, while Washington commended the government for successfully routing militants from some of their strongholds.
The fighting in Azan town in Shabwa province and the Hassan valley in neighboring Abyan follows a surprise government assault earlier this week that recaptured the al-Qaida base of Jaar after weeks of battles that raged back and forth.
The military campaign, assisted by U.S. military advisers and bankrolled by neighboring Saudi Arabia, has left al-Qaida's dangerous Yemen branch on the run. The group remains 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 the most recent clashes on Friday and Saturday, 17 militants died in fighting that raged until early morning in Azan. Six soldiers were wounded in those clashes, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
The officials said tribal chiefs asked the militants to leave the town, because otherwise the population would suffer from army shelling. Witnesses said they saw several trucks carrying al-Qaida fighters and their weapons leaving Azan for the mountains. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be involved in the conflicts.
On Friday, Yemeni warplanes pounded militant hideouts in the mountains surrounding Azan, but the officials said casualty figures from those bombings were not available because of the ruggedness of the terrain.
Four other militants and one soldier died in fighting Saturday in the Hassan valley area in the adjoining Abyan province, the officials also said. The valley is located east of the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which al-Qaida captured last year and held until this month's offensive.
On Friday, the Defense Ministry said government troops killed 40 militants and re-took Shaqra, the last town under militant control in Abyan.
Al-Qaida's fighters took advantage of a security vacuum last year during a popular uprising that ousted Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize swaths of territory in the strategic south. That raised fears it could use the area as a foothold to launch more attacks on U.S. targets.
The network's Yemen offshoot, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, 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 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 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, not far from the main battle zones.
The White House's semiannual report to Congress on the state of U.S. combat operations abroad, delivered Friday, admitted that the U.S. military has been taking "direct action" against members of al-Qaida and affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Saturday the United States commends the success of the Yemenis in retaking important areas of the south, including Jaar and Zinjibar.
"Al-Qaida's presence in Abyan has had a devastating impact on the citizens there and prevented the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance desperately needed by the Yemeni people," she said.
Living conditions remain difficult in the two battle-ravaged towns. Land mines killed three people Friday and civilians were trying to flee to nearby provinces, the local governor Jamal al-Aqel said.
Al-Aqel said by telephone from Zinjibar that he urged residents to stay put while the army clears out land mines planted by al-Qaida. He said life was returning to normal gradually after the arrival of police and security forces.
Despite the military advances in the south, officials warned some al-Qaida fighters who fled to the hinterland could regroup and launch counter-attacks against the army and security forces.