The Yemeni army fully supports the battle against al-Qaeda, the country’s information minister said on Wednesday as a spokesman for a committee set up against the insurgents said al-Qaeda “is fighting to the death.”
Army troops, backed by local tribesmen, captured a strategic mountain that controls access to cities long held by al-Qaeda-linked militants on Wednesday.
The heavy has killed at least 24 people, including 16 suspected insurgents, Al Arabiya reported.
“The army is now advancing to rid the southern Abyan province of al-Qaeda,” the minister said, according to Al Arabiya.
Yemen’s army, with the backing of U.S. experts, is slowly gaining ground in its southern offensive against al-Qaeda, diplomats and officials said on Wednesday, as the death toll in five days of fighting rose to 128.
The fighting is part of an army offensive against Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group that has seized swathes of territory in Yemen's south during a year of political upheaval that toppled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saeed al-Dhailie, a spokesman for a committee set up to mobilize residents against Ansar al-Sharia in Lawdar, said local fighters had managed to capture the Yasouf mountain, a strategic vantage point above the city, after heavy fighting.
"It's bloody. Al-Qaeda are fighting to the death," Dhailie told Reuters.
"This morning the army, assisted by armed tribesmen from Lawdar, succeeded in driving al-Qaeda militants off Yasouf mountain.
"Aerial and artillery attacks by the army started after the dawn prayer. Then we moved up the mountain, official forces and tribesmen side by side. By 11am we had driven al-Qaeda away and recaptured the mountain," he said.
Dhailie said the militants were using Soviet-era heavy machineguns known as Duskas and heavy artillery looted from army camps they had raided in recent months.
Local officials and residents said 16 militants were killed in fresh clashes outside Lawdar, including a local commander of Ansar al-Sharia known as Samir Salem al-Moqayda. Ansar al-Sharia has been trying to capture Lawdar for weeks, without success.
They said eight Yemeni troops and members of the popular committees have also died in the fighting and five more were wounded.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporters, have been alarmed by the growing strength of the militants near shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The United States has stepped up air strikes against suspected members of al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in February after months of protests that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Military sources said troops were also closing in on the militant stronghold of Jaar and the Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar. Residents of Jaar said dozens of families were fleeing the town in anticipation of further violence as the army drew nearer.
The Yemeni delegation of the Red Cross urged all sides to protect non-combatants, expressing concern at reports civilian areas had been targeted. Six civilians were killed in a Yemeni air force strike on Tuesday.