Clashes between al-Qaeda gunmen and the army have killed 26 people dead near the jihadists’ stronghold of Jaar, and a drone killed two in a strike on a militant vehicle, military and tribal sources said.
“Eight soldiers were killed and 15 others were wounded” in fighting that included artillery and machinegun fire late on Friday on the outskirts of Jaar, in Yemen’s south, a military official said.
A tribal source said “18 Qaeda militants were killed” in the same clashes.
“The army now controls the western outskirts of Jaar,” the official said .
Residents and tribes in the area surrounding Jaar have also begun to form armed militias to back the army, the same source said. “This will help us enter Jaar and cleanse it from Qaeda.”
He reported sporadic fighting on Saturday as the air force raided Qaeda positions in the town.
On Friday, local and military sources said that troops advanced toward Jaar, a day after they took control of the city of Louder, also in Abyan province.
Drone strike in Bayda
Meanwhile, five suspected Qaeda militants were killed in air raids in Yemen, and troops killed another two insurgents on Saturday, officials said, in a new U.S.-backed offensive aimed at reasserting control in the south of the country.
An air strike destroyed a vehicle used by militants, killing its two passengers, in Bayda, the provincial governor, Mohammed al-Ameri, told a Defense Ministry website.
On the outskirts of the southern city of Jaar, another air strike killed three militants, a local official told Reuters. Many previous air strikes have been carried out by U.S. drones.
“There is heavy fighting, and the armed elements are doing everything possible to stop the advance of troops,” the official said, adding government forces were about 1 km (0.6 mile) from Jaar.
The Defense Ministry earlier told journalists in a text message that government forces had killed two militants and captured six others outside Jaar.
Insurgents in the south of the impoverished Arab country exploited months of unrest during mass protests last year against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large swathes of territory.
A growing Islamist insurgency in Yemen is of serious concern to the United States and oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which both fear political infighting could give Qaeda’s regional wing a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Apart from controlling Louder and Jaar, the group controls Zinjibar, capital of the province, and also Shaqra, located on the Gulf of Aden.