ADEN, Yemen Yemeni warplanes and troops bombarded the Islamist militant stronghold of Jaar on Monday, officials and witnesses said, part of a U.S.-backed offensive in a country Washington sees as a front line in its war against al Qaeda.
At least 44 soldiers and militants were killed as the army launched its most serious assault on Jaar to date and also attacked positions near Shaqra, a coastal town on a major shipping route, and other areas, a Yemeni military official told Reuters.
Yemen is battling to retake towns and territory in the southern province of Abyan that were seized by militants linked to al Qaeda last year during a popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Washington, which helped engineer Saleh's replacement by his deputy, is supporting the campaign and has increased drone strikes on suspected al Qaeda members it believes may be plotting attacks from Yemen.
It has also sent dozens of military trainers and increased aid to Yemen where it wants President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to reunify the military and focus it against al Qaeda.
"The military has just started an assault from three different fronts in an attempt to enter Jaar," a military official said, adding armed tribesmen were supporting the troops.
The army fought militants overnight into Monday morning, driving them out of small villages and killing at least 28 fighters and six soldiers, the official said.
The official said he did not expect the army to enter the town on Monday because the feared the militants might have booby-trapped most of the surrounding roads.
Residents told Reuters the army used warplanes and artillery to attack the town centre.
The army was also gearing up to try to take the southern coastal town of Shaqra, the official said, adding eight militants and two soldiers were killed in clashes near the town. Shaqra is a gateway for Somalis entering Yemen to fight alongside al Qaeda.
The military's offensive has cut off supplies of food and medicine and forced thousands to flee their homes, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said last week. Tens of thousands were trapped inside towns like Jaar and Shaqra, the ICRC said.
Concerned about the humanitarian and security crisis in Yemen, Gulf Arab states and the West pledged more than $4 billion in aid to the impoverished state last month.
Separately, a Saudi Arabian national, Nasser Abdulaziz al-Mahiri, who was kidnapped six months ago by tribesmen in north Yemen, was released on Sunday after tribal mediation, Yemen's state news agency Saba said on its website.
Kidnappings of foreigners and Yemenis are common in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, where hostages are often used by disgruntled tribesmen to press demands on authorities.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Rania El Gamal and Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Andrew Heavens)