SANAA (Reuters) - More than 50 Yemenis were killed by mines planted by al Qaeda-linked fighters as they fled two of their main strongholds in Yemen's restive south this month, the defense ministry said on Saturday.
Ansar al-Sharia, a group which swears allegiance to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, seized control of several cities in Abyan province last year during a wave of protests that forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
Yemen's army drove the militants out of the provincial capital Zinjibar and strategic city Jaar this month, a major breakthrough in a U.S.-backed offensive aimed at securing stability in the wider oil-rich Gulf region.
The militants planted thousands of mines before they left the strongholds, the defense ministry said on its website, citing Ahmed Ghaleb al-Rahwi, the deputy governor of Abyan.
"More than 50 citizens have been killed by mines planted by the terrorists before they fled Zinjibar, Jaar," said al-Rahwi. The dead included Yemeni civilians and soldiers, said government sources.
Al-Rahwi said that de-mining and the restoration of electricity and water in Jaar had allowed most of those displaced in the fighting to return back home.
Mines were still being removed from Zinjibar so residents should not return yet, he added.
The United States is increasingly concerned about the strength of al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen and has supported government forces with training, intelligence, drone strikes and increased aid. (Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaff; Editing by Amena Bakr and Pravin Char)