SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen suspended a military operation against al Qaeda-linked militants in the south on Wednesday while tribal leaders tried to secure the release three Western hostages the Islamists are holding, a tribal leader said.
About 8,000 soldiers have been taking part in the offensive, which was launched on Monday against on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) stronghold in the small town of al-Manaseh, in al-Bayda province south of the capital Sanaa.
The army began its offensive after the militants rejected demands to release the hostages being held in the town.
The Finnish couple and an Austrian man were snatched last month by tribesmen in Sanaa. A Yemeni official said they were later sold to al Qaeda members and transferred to al-Manaseh.
"We will meet today with both parties to discuss all issues but most importantly the release of the hostages," Sheikh Nasser al-Aji, a tribal chief, said in a written statement about the mediation efforts with al Qaeda representatives.
"Fighting has stopped between the army and al Qaeda followers."
Aji said the Islamist militants had demanded that the military immediately halt its attacks and retreat to base. A senior government official in al-Bayda said the military operation would resume if the mediation efforts faltered.
Foreign Minister Abu bakr al-Qirbi has assured Finland that security forces will "safely secure the release of the hostages," Yemen's state news agency Saba reported on Wednesday.
Saba reported earlier that dozens of al Qaeda-linked militants had been killed and injured during the offensive, without giving details.
"The commanders and soldiers of the participating units have inflicted severe damages among the ranks of the terrorists," Saba reported, quoting a military official. "Dozens have fallen either dead or wounded."
The agency gave no specific dates for when the casualties occurred, but residents and local officials said at least six insurgents and 14 soldiers had been killed in air strikes on Monday and Tuesday against militant targets and ambushes by the Islamist fighters.
Hundreds of al Qaeda-linked militants arrived on Tuesday to reinforce the Islamist fighters in the town.
Tackling lawlessness in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, which borders the world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, is an international priority. The United States views Yemen as a front line in its struggle against al Qaeda.
In a separate development, two soldiers were killed on Wednesday by gunmen in the southern province of Dalea, a security official said.
He blamed southern secessionists but a separatist activist denied they had the gunmen were linked to the movement which have significantly grown following the 2011 uprising against the rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush)