ADEN (Reuters) - Four suspected Islamist militants have been killed in a gunfight with Yemen's army and allied tribal fighters in the impoverished country's turbulent south, which has become al Qaeda's most formidable base, a local official said on Saturday.
Up to 50 militant fighters were battling government forces and their tribal allies in mountains near the town of Jaar, which the army recaptured in June after a 15 month occupation by Ansar al-Sharia.
The Islamist movement seized control of large swathes of southern Yemen during the turmoil caused by mass anti-government protests last year and gave shelter to al Qaeda, flying the international militant group's flag in captured towns.
The United States has used unmanned drones to target the al Qaeda group in Yemen, which has planned attacks on international targets including airliners and is described by Washington as the movement's most dangerous wing.
The local government official said the fighting, which continued late on Saturday, was prompted by the attempted assassination of the commander of one of the tribal militias fighting alongside government forces in the south.
The official said three other militants had been injured, as had three Yemeni soldiers, and the army had arrested a number of other militants and surrounded the leader of their local group, Nader al-Shedadi.
Residents in the Qurn al-Kalsik mountains said by phone they could hear explosions and artillery fire reverberating across the region.
Tribes opposed to Ansar al-Sharia and al Qaeda had played an important role in regaining control of Jaar and other southern towns during the summer.
Abdul Latif al-Sayed, a commander with the Popular Committees, survived the ambush on a road in Abyan Province but one of his bodyguards was killed, said another local official.
The attack was the fourth assassination attempt Sayed has survived, including a suicide bombing at a funeral last month that killed two of his brothers and 43 other people.
"The army, police and tribal fighters chased the gunmen who fled into one of the rugged valleys nearby where there were clashes between the two sides," said the official, who declined to be named.
Mass anti-government protests erupted early last year, causing fighting between tribes and different factions of the army, before former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February to allow a transition towards democracy.
Aid groups have warned of a major humanitarian crisis in the Arabian Peninsula state, where half the population live under the poverty line.
As well as fighting the insurgency by Islamists in Abyan, the government also faces conflict with southern secessionists and with the Houthi group of Zaidi Shi'ite Muslims in north Yemen.
(Reporting by Dhuyazen Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sophie Hares)