ADEN (Reuters) - Gunmen believed to be al Qaeda militants kidnapped 14 Yemeni soldiers returning home by bus from duty in eastern Yemen on Friday and killed them, local officials and residents said.
They said residents found the bodies of the 14 riddled with bullets on a road near the city of Seiyoun in Hadramout province, three hours after they were abducted from a public bus.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), emboldened by a power vacuum in the political turmoil following a 2011 uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is trying to carve out areas of dominance in south and east Yemen.
Friday's attack follows recent gains by the army against the militants, who have been trying to consolidate their control over the volatile Wadi Hadramout area of eastern Yemen.
"An incident like this is for sure the work of al Qaeda," a local official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Yemeni security have killed at least 25 suspected militants in a series of confrontations in the Wadi Hadramout area in the past week, including seven killed on Thursday when they tried to attack an army facility.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has recently ordered extra troops to the area after the militants distributed leaflets suggesting they wanted to declare an Islamic emirate in Seiyoun and ordered women not to go out without a male guardian.
Local officials and residents said the soldiers killed had been travelling to visit families in Sanaa, some 600 km (400 miles).
"It looks as if it was an act of revenge," an official said.
In the incident on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said the militants' target was the headquarters of the first military district, whose jurisdiction covers the Wadi Hadramout area.
A small number of militants also briefly took over several government buildings, including the police headquarters and an intelligence office, in the nearby town of al Qatan early on Thursday, residents said.
Nine suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in Hadramout on Wednesday when they tried to ambush troops heading to eastern Yemen.
The United States regards AQAP as one of the most active wings of the militant network founded by Osama bin Laden. Washington has stepped up its support for the Yemeni government and military, with drone strikes at the heart of its strategy.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Andrew Roche