ADEN Yemen's army recaptured the last al Qaeda stronghold in restive Abyan province on Friday, officials and residents said, in a major advance in its U.S.-backed offensive to drive militants from towns across the south of the country.
Jubilant residents took to the streets to celebrate the rout of the Islamists from the port town of Shaqra, the third significant base to fall in less than a week, witnesses told Reuters.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was now massing troops outside the town of Azzan in neighboring Shabwa province - the militants' last major bastion across the whole of the south, apart from a number of small settlements.
The United States, concerned that al Qaeda was gaining a new foothold in the Middle East, provided training for the army offensive and other support, including drone strikes.
The Islamist militants seized territory during a power vacuum last year as mass protests weakened former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's grip on power and took Yemen to the brink of civil war.
The loss of Shaqra, on top of defeats at Zinjibar and Jaar on Tuesday, ended al Qaeda's reign in Abyan, during which it governed huge swathes of the province according to strict Islamic sharia rules.
"(The recapture of towns in Abyan) is highly significant because this has been a troublesome province for the past year," said Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
"The question now is whether they can hold to the province because al Qaeda has this nasty capability to spring back."
At least 31 militants were killed on Friday during the fighting to retake Shaqra, military officials said.
"The army is now in the town center, there are no militants in the town anymore," one official said, shortly after the recapture of Shaqra.
Military officials in Shabwa said the army killed at least 53 militants near Azzan overnight and through Friday, officials said.
It was impossible to verify the reports independently in the remote territory. There was no one immediately available to comment from the militants, but they have previously vowed to strike back against the offensive.
At least 23 Islamist fighters were killed during overnight clashes near gas facilities in Belhaf in Shabwa province, one military source said.
Military planes bombed a convoy of vehicles carrying militants fleeing Shaqra, killing about 30 Islamists, said a second.
Tribal sources said a number of chiefs from Shabwa were attempting to persuade the Islamist militants to surrender without a struggle.
Many of the al Qaeda militants and leaders belong to major tribes in Abyan and Shabwa provinces, the sources said.
Yemeni officials said many al Qaeda fighters had fled Shaqra to a mountainous region to the west of it or went to Azzan.
Fleeing militants, including Jalal al-Baleidi, also known as Abu Hamza al-Zinjibari, the leader of Ansar al Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) in Abyan, were believed to be seeking refuge in tribal areas. The group is an offshoot of al Qaeda.
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 foiled attempts against U.S. targets.
U.S. officials say that the new Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is more much more cooperative in the fight against Islamist militancy than his predecessor Saleh, who handed power to Hadi this year after months of protests.
(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Andrew Heavens)