Two killed in Yemen as army pursues militants

ADEN Sun Jul 1, 2012 3:15pm EDT

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ADEN (Reuters) - At least two al Qaeda-linked militants were killed as U.S.-backed Yemeni forces pursued fighters driven from their southern strongholds last month, a local official said on Sunday.

Hundreds of militants from Ansar al-Sharia have been on the run since they were pushed from towns and cities they had seized during an uprising that forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Ansar al-Sharia - meaning Partisans of Islamic Law - swears allegiance to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have called the most dangerous offshoot of the global militant network.

The official said the army clashed with a group of 10 militants in Dalea province late on Saturday. One was killed on the spot and one died of his wounds. The rest were captured.

Driving the Islamists from the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in Abyan province was hailed as a major breakthrough in a U.S.-backed offensive aimed at stabilizing the impoverished nation and the wider oil-producing Gulf region.

But the assassination of a top southern military commander days later showed the threat from al Qaeda-linked fighters is still present.

The Defense Ministry said on Sunday security services in the port city of Aden had arrested a cell responsible for the killing of Major General Salem Qatan, the commander of military forces in southern Yemen.

In a text message, the ministry said the arrests had prevented two other attacks the cell was planning to carry out.

Separately, a local official said one soldier and two civilians were injured when a bomb exploded on a road near the southern city of Lawdar. Civilians detained a Somali national who had planted the device, the official said.

U.S. officials say President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - who came to power in February as part of a power-transfer deal brokered by the United States and Gulf states - is more cooperative in the fight against al Qaeda than his predecessor.

A Yemeni military official said a U.S. training team had arrived at a base in southern Lahej province.

The Defense Ministry said that in Azzan, one of the towns held by the militants until recently, a large cache of bombs and explosives had been made safe.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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