ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni troops tightened their grip on Monday on a southern town largely controlled by an al Qaeda-linked group as they fought to dislodge them in a new U.S.-backed offensive against Islamist militants.
An army official said five militants were killed in clashes with government troops on the eastern edge of Zinjibar, which was overrun by Islamist fighters a year ago, whilst former President Ali Abdullah Saleh grappled with protests against his rule.
Yemeni forces pushed into the centre of Zinjibar on Saturday, recapturing key positions, but the militants still hold a considerable chunk of the town and have planted mines to cover their retreat, officials said.
The United States and its Gulf Arab allies have watched with mounting alarm as militants exploit political instability in Yemen to gain a foothold there, particularly in the southern province of Abyan.
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.
Several militants were killed in an air strike in al-Baydah province, north of Abyan, on Monday, 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; Writing by Isabel Coles, editing by Diana Abdallah