Yemeni government forces regained control of a strategic gateway in the south on Tuesday after intense three-day shelling of al-Qaeda hideouts in the area that left 43 militants dead, military and medical officials said.
The military had stepped up attacks and airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the mountainous area of al-Rahha in the southern province of Lahj, a strategically important region that links the south with Yemen’s northern cities.
The offensive followed two surprise attacks by militants on Yemeni army bases in the area.
The military officials said government forces are trying to reclaim key cities in Aden and Abyan provinces in the south, overrun by al-Qaeda. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants have taken advantage of a year of internal political turmoil and security vacuum in Yemen to expand their gains in the country’s south. The militants have seized several towns and cities and entire swaths of land, and the military’s campaign has so far not managed to retake those areas.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement’s most dangerous offshoots.
Mid-level officers and soldiers have been informing al-Qaeda militants about military matters in southern provinces, according to military officials, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The officials said they believe al-Qaeda has taken advantage of deep poverty in Yemen’s south by paying off soldiers in exchange for information about the military’s movements. Officials also blame defections on low morale among some army units.
In another southern province, security officials said al-Qaeda militants held a number of Yemeni staff hostage sent to repair a damaged gas pipeline on Tuesday. After around four hours, local tribal chiefs brokered their release.