May 28, 2012 / 4:12 PM / 5 years ago

Yemen army tightens grip on militant-held town

ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni troops clashed with Islamist militants in a southern town largely controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked group as they fought to dislodge them in a new U.S.-backed offensive.

Six militants were killed in the clashes on the eastern edge of Zinjibar, the Defence Ministry said on Monday.

Several militants were also killed on Monday in air strikes in other areas of southern Yemen. Local officials and militants said one of the attacks was carried out by a U.S. drone.

Militants overran Zinjibar one year ago, while former President Ali Abdullah Saleh grappled with protests that weakened central government control over Yemen and eventually toppled him. The town has been contested ever since.

Previous efforts to retake Zinjibar have met with fierce resistance from the militants, who have seized several other towns in the southern province of Abyan and declared them Islamic emirates.

The United States and its Gulf Arab allies have watched with mounting alarm as security deteriorates in Yemen, home to al Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula wing (AQAP), which is viewed by Washington as a serious threat.

The Yemeni army has recently regained some initiative in the south, pushing into the centre of Zinjibar, but the militants still hold a considerable chunk of the town and have planted mines to cover their retreat, officials said.

Jaar, another militant stronghold in Abyan, is being surrounded from all sides by the army.

American intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say their ability to conduct operations against militants inside Yemen has improved significantly since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi replaced Saleh earlier this year.

A local official said seven al Qaeda operatives have been killed in an air strike targeting a vehicle on the road between the militant-held town of Azzan and Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout province in the east.

Earlier, several militants were killed in an air strike in al-Baydah province, north of Abyan, the Defence Ministry said. Local sources and militants said a U.S. drone was behind the attack.

“This afternoon, American planes targeted a vehicle belonging to militants... The bombardment resulted in the deaths of two bystanders and one (militant) brother...” militant group Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) said in a text message.

A local official said the target of the strike was a provincial militant commander and his brother, both of whom survived.

U.S. drones have frequently killed civilians and are deeply resented by Yemenis, even the many who abhor al Qaeda.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf, additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Isabel Coles, editing by Diana Abdallah

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