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ADEN (Reuters) - The Yemeni army drove al-Qaeda-linked fighters from two of their main strongholds on Tuesday after weeks of fighting, the Defence Ministry said, a major breakthrough in a U.S.-backed offensive meant to secure stability in the wider oil-rich Gulf region.
Jubilant residents took to the streets of the Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar and the strategic city of Jaar in spontaneous celebrations after militants from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), who had held the two southern cities for more than a year, fled advancing Yemeni troops.
"I am now speaking from the local government headquarters in Zinjibar," Major General Salem Qatan, commander of the southern region, told Reuters by telephone. "The cities of Zinjibar and Jaar have been completely cleansed," he said.
The recapture of Jaar and Zinjibar is the army's biggest victory against the militants in more than a year of political turmoil that has taken Yemen to the brink of civil war and fuelled fears about al Qaeda's presence in a country that is next door to Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.
Ali Saeed Obeid, a military spokesman, called the recapture of Jaar "an astounding defeat for al Qaeda", while residents said they were relieved.
"It is like seeing darkness being lifted from our lives after a year," Jaar resident Naseem Salem said by telephone.
The Defence Ministry said the army, backed by local fighters from popular committees, had entered Jaar on Tuesday morning after heavy fighting that killed at least 20 militants, four soldiers and two civilians. At least 20 Yemeni soldiers were also wounded in the fighting, it said.
The first signs that the militants had been routed came at dawn, when Muslim worshippers heading to prayers noticed that the gunmen who had ruled the city for more than a year had disappeared.
The militants had left behind flyers asking inhabitants to forgive them, asserting that they had not wanted to "cause any harm to Jaar and its inhabitants", residents said.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, an affiliate of al Qaeda, confirmed that the army had taken control of the town of more than 100,000 people and said a statement would be issued later.
Jamal al-Aqel, Abyan's governor, told a Defence Ministry website that about 200-300 militants, including senior leaders and foreign fighters, had fled Jaar and Zinjibar and that the army was pursuing them.
"We will carry on cleansing the entire province from the terrorist components that undermined security and stability in Abyan," Aqel told the website.
At least 10 militants were killed in Tuesday's fighting in Zinjibar before the Islamist fighters fled, a military spokesman said. The army was now driving the militants towards their two remaining strongholds of Shaqra and Azzan, officials said.
Emboldened by waning government control over the impoverished country during last year's popular protests that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militants seized Jaar in March 2011, before occupying Zinjibar and the coastal town of Shaqra.
U.S. officials say that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - who came to power in February after Saleh signed a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf states - is more cooperative in the fight against Islamist militancy than his predecessor.
Analysts have suggested that Saleh deliberately gave al Qaeda a free rein in the south during protests against his 33 years in office in a cynical but failed attempt to convince Washington he should remain in power to deal with the threat.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is believed to be the most active branch of the global network and has plotted a number of botched attempts against U.S. targets.
The Yemeni army, which was split by last year's protests between an old guard loyal to Saleh and a new guard seen as close to activists seeking his removal, moved against the militants last month following a series of insurgent attacks that killed hundreds of soldiers.
The United States has limited its intervention to drone strikes, mostly hitting what it calls high-value targets, as well as training the Yemeni military.
Hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and militants died in sustained clashes as the army pressed home its advance.
Jaar, described as the breadbasket of Abyan province, occupies a strategically-important location at a major crossroads between Yemen's main port of Aden and the north.
The army has reopened the vital Aden-Jaar road, which had been closed for more than a year, a military official said in a text message. The road is the main link between Aden and the northern parts of Abyan province.
In the town of Shaqra - which is further along the coast to the east - the official said troops had cornered the Islamist militants in two locations, adding that warplanes were taking part in the fighting.
"They've put themselves in a small circle because all roads and supply lines to them were cut off," the official said.
The Defence Ministry said on its website that the Yemeni navy had sunk 10 boats in which the militants had been planning to flee Shaqra if needed. It gave no figures on casualties.
The website also reported that military planes had destroyed two cars used by militants heading from Zinjibar to Shaqra.
A spokesman at the Yemeni embassy in Washington said in a statement that the army was closing in on the town of Azzan, an al Qaeda bastion in Shabwa province.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Osborn