Yemeni artillery and military aircraft backing pro-government tribesmen have pounded alleged al-Qaeda fighters trying to battle their way into a strategic town in the country’s south, while a suspected US air strike killed at least 12 militants, officials said.
The fighting near the town of Lawder started over the weekend when militant fighters attacked an army post, sparking resistance from Yemeni troops and armed residents.
The Yemeni military said that at least 165 militants had been killed over the past three days, -including 38 on Wednesday. The officials said six civilians fighting alongside the army were also killed.
Another 12 militants were killed when a vehicle stolen from an army post in recent days was hit by an air strike. Residents said the vehicle took a direct hit, leaving it totally destroyed with bodies strewn nearby. They and the officials spoke on condition of -anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
US officials could not be immediately reached for comment, though US drones have targeted al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen in the past.
The fighting is the latest in a series of bloody confrontations between government forces and militants in southern Yemen, where the militants control a patchwork of towns taken mostly last year in the chaos that surrounded the popular uprising against former longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Yemeni Ministry of Defense said in a statement that those killed on Wednesday included two senior members of the militant network in the area. It identified them as Imad al-Manshaby and Ahmed Mohammed Taher. Other security officials said the dead also included -Saudis, Somalians and a Pakistani. They did not specify how many were foreigners.
Often the fighting in the south has gone against the government, with demoralized and unprepared Yemeni army garrisons taking heavy losses from determined militant assaults.
In some cities like Lawder, the army has received critical help from residents who have become fed up with the government’s inability to defend them and, in a country where most adult males possess weapons, have taken up arms to protect themselves.
The town has about 300 mostly young men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades who have joined the government side in the fight. However, they are running low on ammunition and food supplies, one of their leaders Jihad Hafeez said.
Military officials say that the militants appear to be determined to take the town despite the losses they have suffered. Lawder lies on a key highway that links Abyan Province’s capital Zinjibar, a militant stronghold, with other provinces further east such as Hadramawt, Bayda and Shabwa, where they are also active.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the terror network’s most dangerous offshoots.
Saleh, who left office in -February as part of a US-backed deal, was Washington’s longtime partner in the fight against al-Qaeda in this impoverished Arab nation.
However, he was frequently found to be unreliable and turned a blind eye to the growing strength of militant groups as part of an elaborate balancing act to maintain control over the country.
Yemen’s popular uprising, which was inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, succeeded in pushing Saleh from power. His successor, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was rubber-stamped in a single-candidate nationwide vote that was part of the power transfer deal.