Yemen army enters militant stronghold in south - defence ministry

ADEN, Yemen Tue May 6, 2014 7:52am EDT

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ADEN, Yemen May 6 (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces waging an offensive against al Qaeda pushed into a militant stronghold in the south after insurgents blew up a government building there with some then withdrawing, the Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.

Since 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's main Yemen base has been in the mountainous al-Mahfad area of Abyan province where militants had fled after the army, with U.S. help, drove them from towns they seized during a chaotic national uprising in 2011.

Major powers are keen on Yemen curbing Islamist insurgents and restoring order in the south to prevent threats to No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the risk of Yemen being used as a springboard for attacks on Western targets.

The Defence Ministry's website quoted an official military source as saying soldiers and allied tribal militias known as popular committees had crossed into al-Mahfad.

"The source said al Qaeda elements blew up the government building in al-Mahfad," the defence ministry cited the source as saying, and some militants had fled the area afterwards.

The Yemeni army is waging a concerted offensive against insurgents in some of the most impenetrable regions of the Arabian Peninsula state.

The offensive follows a series of air strikes, including by U.S. drones, against insurgent bastions that killed some 65 fighters. Last week a Yemeni official and tribal source confirmed the killing of the head of the AQAP cell in al-Mahfad.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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