ADEN (Reuters) - At least nine people were killed on Wednesday when Yemeni troops launched an offensive on an eastern city, targeting al Qaeda-linked fighters who have declared they aim to set up an Islamist state there, officials and residents said.
A Yemeni military source said three soldiers, including the force commander, and at least seven militants were killed in the fighting at Ghail Bawazeer, north of the Hadramout provincial capital of al-Mukalla.
But the Yemeni Defence Ministry said only one officer was killed and five soldiers wounded in the fighting in which troops were backed by tanks and helicopters. The ministry said seven militants died and several others were wounded.
Residents said one civilian travelling on bus which was caught up in the fighting was killed and at least two others wounded.
The Yemeni government is struggling with an Islamist insurgency, a separatist movement in the south, and a spate of attacks by gunmen on government facilities and military and security officers.
The unrest has alarmed neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter, as well as the United States, which views Yemen as a frontline in its struggle against al Qaeda.
Islamist militants in Hadramout have distributed leaflets in Ghail Bawazeer, the province's fourth-largest city, saying they planned to declare an Islamist emirate there.
The Yemeni army last year drove out Islamist militants from several towns they had captured a year earlier in southern Yemen in an offensive backed by the United States.
The militants had since resorted to hit and run operations targeting senior officers or military installations.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Robin Pomeroy)